Category: The Front Line

What Comes after Amorphous IGZO?

Sharp has established indium gallium zinc oxide (IGZO) as a successful backplane material that enables high aperture ratios in high-pixel-density LCDs in sizes too large for low-temperature polysilicon (LTPS) to be financially viable. IGZO is also an attractive, lower-cost alternative for LTPS in high-pixel-density smart-phone LCDs.

Sharp and Qualcomm are working together on IGZO-driven pixtronix displays, which use in-plane MEMS shutters and field-sequential color.

Sharp is not discussing plans for IGZO-driven OLED displays, although they show an increasing variety of IGZO/OLED prototypes at trade shows. There are good reasons for being cautious. When it became clear that the switching characteristics of amorphous silicon (a-Si) were extremely unstable when a-Si TFTs were used to switch current-driven OLEDs and that LTPS was both expensive and not readily scalable to monitor and TV sizes, the industry set out to find a backplane material for OLEDs that ideally combined the low cost and scalability of a-Si with the stability of LTPS. R&D teams were drawn to the class of materials called transparent metal-oxide semiconductors.

IGZO eventually appeared to be the best suited to the task, but several categories of instabilities raised their ugly heads. One by one, solutions for those instabilities were found, with a couple of exceptions. LG Display made a strategic decision to commit itself to IGZO when most researchers though that at least a couple of years more were needed to make IGZO ready for volume production of OLED-TVs. LG initially paid a price for its leap of faith. Knowledgeable sources believe that LG’s manufacturing yield of IGZO/OLED panels was 10% last year, rising to 50% early this year. LGD has established an internal goal of 70% for its new Gen 8 M2 fab, which is scheduled to begin producing OLED-TV panels in the third quarter of this year. Will the lessons LGD has learned by climbing this painful learning curve ultimately pay off? Time will tell.

Quick summary of the story so far: IGZO is a success for LCDs and is working its painful way forward for OLEDs. There is certainly room for alternatives.

Sharp is working on crystalline IGZO (x-IGZO). The original appeal of a-IGZO was that its carrier mobility was not too much less than the crystalline form, and offered the vision of inexpensive a-Si-like fabrication. But Sharp now feels it understands how to crystallize the amorphous form economically and obtain the greater stability and even greater carrier mobility that crystallinity will impart. That, says Sharp, will provide a material that is more suitable for OLED backplanes, as well as very high-ppi LCDS.

Other possibilities are the wonder materials graphene and carbon nanotubes, but they are still quite a way from being ready for incorporation in commercial panels.

Amorphyx, a development-stage Oregon State University spin-off, is developing the amorphous metal nonlinear resistor (AMNR) for display-switching applications. The AMNR is a two-terminal device that has just three thin films and uses current tunneling for its operational mechanism. Amorphyx claims no sensitivity to light, 40% lower cost than a-Si and better optical performance, and a manufacturing process that leverages a-Si TFT production equipment.

Finally, for the purposes of this column, is CBRITE. CBRITE has a management and technical team that grabs your attention. The Chairman and co-founder is Nobel Prize winner Alan J. Heeger. Former Display Fellow at DuPont Display Gang Yu is CTO and co-founder. Bruce Berkoff, former EVP and CMO at LG.Philips Display is CMO.

CBRITE is using a metal-oxide TFT, but the metal oxide is something other than IGZO. The material and process delivers carrier mobility that is greater than IGZO’s, says Berkoff. The mobility readily goes beyond 30cm²/V·sec, and 80cm²/V·sec has been demonstrated. CBRITE’s switches are OLED-stable, says Berkoff, and I(ON)/I(OFF) ˜ 10¹º @ 10V. A five-mask process reduces cost compared to a-Si. Gang Yu says partners are likely to receive panels for qualification late this year. Berkoff adds the technology will probably appear in shipping products in 2015 or 2016.

Expect lots of discussion about these issues at next month’s SID Display Week. a-IGZO is an important chapter in the development of display backplanes, but it’s certainly not the last one.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications.  He consults for attorneys, investment analysts, and companies entering or repositioning themselves in industries related to displays and the products that use them.  You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.

 

A Tale Of Two Companies, Revisited

It’s annual meeting time in Japan, and the final reports for fiscal year 2014 are trickling in. (In Japan, the fiscal year starts on April 1 and runs through March 31.)

Given all of the financial misery that Japan Inc. has been enduring for the past four years, you’d probably cringe before opening the latest consolidated financial statements. Yet, there was a surprise this time.

Let’s look at two of the dominant CE brands in Japan – Panasonic and Sony. The former company grabbed some headlines last year when it announced an exit from the plasma display panel (PDP) business, effective 12/31/13. For years, plasma displays and televisions were synonymous with Panasonic – they dominated the market and provided most of the technological breakthroughs that led to the (still to this day, IMHO) “best in class” televisions on the market.

Sometimes “best’ doesn’t always win. Plasma TV shipments and sales had been in steady decline for the past seven years as more and more consumers chose LCD TVs, particularly after 1080p resolution became widespread and national discounters like Vizio forced prices down to bargain-basement levels.

2013’s final numbers from NPD DisplaySearch show that plasma TV shipments from all brands (Panasonic, Samsung, and LG) accounted for slightly more than 4% of the global TV market. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and Panasonic – who had been in the midst of a massive review of all 80+ of its business units – did the right thing and quickly cut its losses, however painful that may have been.

Now, it appears all of that aggressive restructuring and cost-cutting has paid off. For FY 2014, Panasonic posted a net profit of about ¥120.4 billion, or $1.18B USD. That represents a spectacular turnaround from a ¥754 billion loss in FY 2013, or about $7B USD.

In addition to the money-losing plasma operations, Panasonic also jettisoned its mobile phone business. (Didn’t know they made mobile phones? Neither did most people.) Along with slimming down underperforming business units, finishing the acquisition of Sanyo and all costs associated with it, and shifting their focus to everything from energy storage solutions to Lumix cameras, the company realized an operating profit of ¥305 billion ($2.3B) for the fiscal year.

Now, on to Sony, who has struggled to maintain profitability for several years, thanks in part to the never-ending red ink generated by its television business unit. Sony won’t post its final numbers until May 15, but an advisory went out on May 1 saying that they won’t be pretty – and in fact will be worse than previous guidance suggested.

The company now is forecasting an operating income of ¥26 billion ($255M USD) for FY 2014 when all is said and done. That number represents a steep drop of 67% from the company’s original forecast of ¥80 billion ($783M USD). Sony identified two primary reasons for the drop in income. I’ll quote from the company’s press release:

“Sony expects to record approximately 30 billion yen in additional expenses in the fiscal year ended March 31, 2014 related to exiting the PC business. Since Sony’s announcement on February 6, 2014 that it will exit the PC business, PC sales for the fiscal year ended March 31, 2014 and expected PC sales for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2015 are underperforming the February expectation. Consequently, Sony expects to record write-downs for excess components in inventory and accrual of expenses to compensate suppliers for unused components ordered for Sony’s spring PC lineup. In addition, certain restructuring charges are expected to be recorded ahead of schedule.”

Okay, so the computer operations weren’t pulling their weight, which is why Sony decided to exit stage right and reportedly sell their VAIO operations to Lenovo (as announced in February). But there’s more:

Sony expects to record approximately 25 billion yen in impairment charges mainly related to its overseas disc manufacturing business. Primarily due to demand for physical media contracting faster than anticipated, mainly in the European region, the future profitability of the disc manufacturing business has been revised. Consequently, Sony has determined that it does not expect to generate sufficient cash flow in the future to recover the carrying amount of long-lived assets, resulting in an expected impairment charge. Primarily due to the reason mentioned above, the fair value of the entire disc manufacturing business also has decreased, resulting in an expected impairment of goodwill.”

Translation: The Blu-ray and DVD business is in the tank, particularly in Europe. Clearly, consumers are turning more and more to cloud storage and streaming of movies and TV shows, and not purchasing or renting optical discs. That’s definitely not good news in Tokyo, but it’s not like this trend snuck up and blindsided the company: I’ve been writing about it for several years now in Display Daily.

Given how aggressively Sony worked a few years ago to convince Warner Home Media and other studios to dump the nascent HD-DVD format in favor of Sony’s home-grown Blu-ray platform, this development must sting all the more. And talk about bad timing: The latest numbers from the Digital Entertainment Group (DEG) show that digital movie sales (streaming and downloads) during the first three months of 2014 totaled $330.25 million, while optical disc sales and revenue were down 13.7% to $1.82 billion from $2.1 billion in the first quarter of 2013, continuing a long-term steady decline that goes all the way back almost a decade.

We won’t have the final numbers from Sony for a few weeks. (Sharp and Toshiba also have yet to report their year-end results.) But you can clearly see what happens when one company faces reality and takes the bull by the horns, while another keeps stalling for time. I’ll check in again in two weeks with the rest of the numbers from Japan, Inc.

Smart Phones: Galaxy S5 Triumphs; Amazon 3D Entices

North American sales of Samsung’s long-awaited Galaxy S5 phone began on April 11, and pundits muttered that carriers were nervous about how the phone would sell. As it turns out, either the worries were overblown or the pundits were smoking funny cigarettes.

Four days after North American sales commenced, a Samsung spokesperson said GS5 orders “were already in the millions,” and that first-day sales were double that of of the GS4, the GS5′s prececessor that had its debut last year. The GS5 has sold out in many countries following its launch in 125 other countries on April 14, reported ZDNet Korea. The website went on to report that the GS5 is outselling the GS4 by a factor of 1.3 overall, and has double the sales of its predecessor in the UK and parts of Europe.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about Ray Soneira’s test results on the GS5′s display. I can now report that the GS5′s real-world performance is entirely consistent with the results of Soneira’s exhaustive testing. In particular, the screen is easily readable in bright sunlight. Or, to be pricise, in sunlight that is as bright as sunlight gets in southern New England in mid-April. It really makes a difference when you don’t have to hide under a picnic table to work out of doors.

Amazon entices. The Wall Street Journal’s Greg Bensinger and Evelyn Rusli reported on April 11 that Amazon will announce a “3D”smartphone in June for release in Q3. ”

Amazon's maybe-3D smartphone was shown with the case concealed with a shroud.  (Photo:  BGR)

Amazon’s maybe-3D smartphone was shown with the case concealed with a shroud. (Photo: BGR)

[Amazon] has been demonstrating versions of the handset to developers in San Francisco and its hometown Seattle in recent weeks,” sources briefed on the company’s plans told Bensigner and Rusli. The sources said the handset would use four front-facing cameras to perform eye-tracking and deliver autostereoscopic 3D (stereo 3D without glasses). Display people were immediately suspicious of this assertion because four cameras are not necessary for eye-tracking. Indeed, another source said the four cameras will be used to determine the distance of the user’s face from the phone, and perform zooming functions in response. Without more information, this explanation is not satisfying either.

According to Bensinger and Rusli, Amazon told one of its suppliers it plans to begin volume production of the phone late in April, with an initial order of 600,000 units. One of the two display makers who will provide panels for the phone is Japan Display Inc., which also makes displays for the iPhone 5C and 5S, according to a “person familiar with the details.”

There has been considerable discussion about why Amazon would want to get into the hyper-competitive smartphone market. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has said that the company’s devices don’t have to make a profit if they further the company’s goals of selling more media. Analysts have added that an Amazon smartphones could also funnel more information about users to the company, creating a richer picture of users’ commercial and geographic lives.

Amazon has demonstrated its ability to make world-class devices. Its recent Kindle Fire HDX tablets and its very recent Amazon Fire TV streaming media player are excellent offerings in their segments. Based on this history, the forthcoming product — shall we call it the “FireFone?” — is likely to have excellent specs, ergonomics, user interface, and industrial design — and be an efficient front end for ordering even more stuff from Amazon. But can it shoulder Apple and Android apart sufficiently to get some breathing room?

That’s where the 3D comes in, if it is 3D. If the feature is well implemented, it could differentiate the phone and be a compelling enabler for key applications. What applications? Let’s try gaming. Smartphone users spend more of their time playing games than on any other application category. And Amazon understands the importance of games. The company is pitching the Fire TV as a game platform as much as a streaming media platform. That’s not to say that 3D has yet established itself as an essential gaming feature, but can be more effective on small screens than on large ones. So there is at least a chance that Amazon will find gold in them thar 3D hills. I look forward to seeing what the “3D” phone does and how well it does it — and whether it’s really 3D.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications.  He consults for attorneys, investment analysts, and companies entering or repositioning themselves in industries related to displays and the products that use them.  You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.

Samsung Galaxy S5 has Best Cell Phone Display Ever

Friend and colleague Ray Soneira, President of DisplayMate Technologies Corp. (www.displaymate.com), recently published the results of his painstaking tests on the display in Samsung’s new Galaxy S5 smart phone. Soneira’s bottom line is that the GS5 has the best display ever put in a cell phone. Although the 5.1-inch display has the same number (1920×1080) of diamond-shaped pixels as the display that appeared in the GS4, this is a very different display. It’s brighter, has lower screen reflectance, provideds greater visibility in high ambient light, consumes less power, and has the most accurate colors of any smart-phone or tablet display DisplayMate has ever measured.

Samsung has been improving the luminance of its OLED smart-phone a tablet displays over the last few generations. The GS5 is 22% brighter than the GS4 (but consumes no more power) and 13% brighter than the Galaxy Note 3 tablet, according to DisplayMate’s measurements. For most image content it provides a luminance over 400 nits, which is comparable to or greater than LCDs of this size. But it gets even better. When “automatic brightness” is turned on, the GS5 generates a remarkable 698 nits in high ambient light. That’s 47% brighter than the GS4, and in this mode it’s the brightest mobile display DisplayMate has ever tested. On the other end of the luminance range, you can enter “super dimming mode” and reduce luminance to only 2 nits — useful for your next night operation with Seal Team Six.

Although multiple screen modes are not new in Samsung mobile devices, the GS5 implements the feature well, with the modes modes offering different levels of color saturation and display calibration. Of the five screen modes in the GS5, the “cinema mode” provides the most accurate color and white point calibration for the sRGB/Rec. 709 color gamut that is used for most consumer content on PCs, TVs, digital still cameras, and camcorders. The “professional photo mode” provides an accurate calibration for the Adobe RGB gamut, which is 17% larger than the Rec. 709 gamut.

The “adapt display mode” provides real-time adaptive processing. For some applications it will vary the white point, gamut, and color saturation based on the image content and the color of the ambient lighting as measured by an RGB ambient light sensor, which measures color in addition to illuminance. This mode also delivers higher color saturation, which helps compensate for the washing out of screen color and contrasts from reflected light under high ambient.

With our without this mode, the GS5′s display starts off with good specifications for high-ambient viewing. Screen reflectance is only 4.5%, which may not sound all that good if you design aircraft cockpit displays, but (along with the GS4) this is the lowest reflectance for a mobile display ever measured by DisplayMate. Combined with the GS5′s very high luminance when automatic brightness is turned on, this provides a contrast rating for high ambient light that ranges from 75 to 155, the highest DisplayMate has ever measured.

Soneira concludes his report this way: “Based on our extensive Lab tests and measurements, the Galaxy S5 is the Best performing Smartphone display that we have ever tested. It has a long list of new records for best Smartphone display performance including: Highest Brightness, Lowest Reflectance, Highest Color Accuracy, Infinite Contrast Ratio, Highest Contrast Rating in Ambient Light, and smallest Brightness Variation with Viewing Angle. It has raised the bar for top display performance up by another notch – an impressive achievement for OLED technology!” Soneira says a lot more about the GS5 display at http://displaymate.com/Galaxy_S5_ShootOut_1.htm, including extensive specification and comparison charts.

The Samsung Galaxy S5 may have the best specifications of any smart phone introduced to date, and generated the kind of pre-launch excitement that used to be reserved for new Apple products. Now, thanks to Ray Soneira’s typically diligent testing, we know that the phone has a display worthy of its other specifications.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications. He consults for attorneys, investment analysts, and companies entering or repositioning themselves in industries related to displays and the products that use them. You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.

Deconstructing Aereo

On April 22, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in the Aereo case. Broadcasters want the company’s unique “antenna to IP” service shut down, claiming it is avoiding retransmission fees by a clever legal/engineering system, and operates in violation of copyright laws.

Aereo and many other amicus briefs argue that Aereo is within its rights to deliver over-the-air broadcast signals to subscribers because each subscriber has, in effect, their own antenna and cloud DVR, which they control. In this interpretation, Aereo is only leasing space on an antenna to deliver a TV broadcast to subscribers, much the same way an electric company provides power to the home to operate a television.

There have been so many arguments for and against this service that it’s hard to keep up with them. Not only that, two U.S. district courts (1st and 2nd) have ruled in favor of Aereo, barring any injunctions, while a third (10th) has ruled against it, shutting down Aereo’s services in Denver and Salt Lake City.

In an unusual move, the United State Solicitor General has asked to present oral arguments in the case. This is significant because the Supreme Court often defers to the Solicitor General, who (it appears) is preparing to argue in favor of the plaintiffs (broadcasters).

You can find plenty of articles and coverage of the case, most focusing on the legal aspects and current copyright law. I don’t intend to discuss those, but instead will talk about a more obscure aspect of the case – the actual engineered antenna system, and if it actually does what Aereo claims it does.

Aereo Logo 300p

Before I get started, I want to emphasize that I have not seen the Aereo antenna system in person, nor any of the associated electronics. Nor have I had any conversation with company principals. (TechCrunch recently toured the NY Aereo facility and you can see a video of that tour here.) I only have photos of the individual antennas and the antenna array, and the patent applications to go by.

I should also mention my credentials to deliver the analysis you are about to read. I have been playing around with radio equipment since age 5 and actually had two pirate radio stations on the air – one AM, and one FM – while in high school, so many years ago. Not long after that, I studied for and got my first amateur radio license, and within 11 years qualified for the Amateur Extra Class license (KT2B).

Along the way, I spent hours building transmitters, receivers, converters, amplifiers and preamplifiers, and other gadgets, even etching my own circuit boards. At one time, I had a 65-foot antenna tower in my back yard with yagi beams for frequencies from 7 MHz to 2.3 GHz, and have backpacked homemade portable VHF/UHF/microwave stations into the Pocono, Kittatiny, Adirondack, Green, Berkshire, and Catskill mountains.

For about ten years, I wrote a monthly column on VHF/UHF signal theory and operation for the now-defunct 73 Magazine. I also contributed to QST and CQ magazines. When the digital TV transition started, I was the first person in my neighborhood to install rooftop antennas and set-top boxes to watch broadcast HDTV, and of course staged the infamous HDTV Super Bowl parties for ten years.

So I’d like to think I picked up a little knowledge about antennas and signal propagation during the past 45 years. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Aereo’s argument and the flaws I find in it.

THE BASICS – ANTENNA PHYSICS

To receive TV broadcasts, you need some sort of antenna. And that antenna can’t just be a paper clip or coat hanger (although both can work sometimes). The antenna must have some physical relationship to the wavelength of the signal being received. If it does, it approaches resonance and transfers the maximum level of signal to a receiver.

We know the relationship between wavelength and frequency. They’re inversely proportional to each other, and a quick way to determine the wavelength is to divide the frequency into 300. (Or vice-versa to determine the wavelength.) Example: The wavelength of a TV broadcast signal on channel 2, broadcasting at about 55 megahertz (MHz), is about 5.45 meters. If you could actually see the radio wave, one complete cycle of the signal would measure 5.45 meters, or almost 18 feet.

In order for our antenna to resonate – i.e., have gain at the desired frequency – it needs to have some fractional relationship to the wavelength. So, a full-wave loop for channel 2 would measure 18 feet. A  ½-wave dipole would then measure 9 feet, while a ¼-wave whip antenna would measure about 4.5 – about 54 inches.

That’s not to say that our channel 2 antenna wouldn’t work at other frequencies. It could also pull in signals at channel 3, or 4, or even 5 and 6. But it wouldn’t be as efficient at those frequencies as it would on channel 2.

The same principle holds true for high band VHF channels (7-13). To pull in channel 7, broadcasting at about 176 MHz, we’d like to have an antenna with a full wavelength of 5.6 feet. A ½- wave antenna would then measure about 2.8 feet, and a ¼-wave whip antenna would measure about 1.4 feet, or 17 inches.

For UHF TV channels, let’s pick 600 MHz (TV channel 36) for our example. A full wavelength here is 1/2 meter, or about 19 inches. A ½-wave antenna would then be 9.5 inches and a ¼-wave whip antenna, such as you’d find on wireless microphone systems, would measure slightly less than 5 inches.

Again, that’s not to say the ¼-wave or ½-wave antennas mentioned wouldn’t work on higher or lower UHF TV channels. It’s just that they’re most efficient at 600 MHz. All of this is just basic physics and innate knowledge to anyone who has worked with RF antenna and transmission systems, amateur or professional.

Each individual "antenna" in the Aereo system is about the size of a dime.

Each individual “antenna” in the Aereo system is about the size of a dime.

Here is a cross-sectional view of the tiny antenna elements in place.

Here is a cross-sectional view of the tiny antenna elements in place.

Now, let’s look at the Aereo antenna. It’s about the size of a dime and resembles a small loop antenna. Just looking at it in a photo and keeping in mind the science you just read, it would be impossible for such a small antenna to have ANY resonance or gain on low-band VHF TV channels, let alone high-band TV channels.

Yet, that is precisely what Aereo seems to be claiming: One subscriber can activate one of these antennas to watch WABC on channel 7 in New York, or WNET on channel 13. And I don’t see how these tiny little pieces of metal can even work on UHF TV channels: They’re just too small.

Granted, if they were close enough to the transmitting antenna atop the Empire State Building – like a few hundred feet away – the signal levels would be so strong that they would “brute force” their way through the antenna system. But functioning as standalone antennas a few miles away? Not very likely.

Now, here’s where things get tricky and the boundaries between engineering and law become blurred. Aereo installs these tiny antennas in close-spaced arrays on circuit boards. Thanks to the laws of antenna physics, that close spacing guarantees that adjacent antennas interact with each other. That’s due to the principles of inductive and capacitive coupling.

And that means the thousands of smaller, individual antennas couple energy together to act like a larger antenna; one that will approach resonance and have some gain at the desired reception frequencies.

No matter how you switch the antennas, they do interact; it is simple science. And that appears to be the secret sauce behind what Aereo is doing: Creating large “virtual” antenna arrays made up of thousands of tiny, individual antenna elements that, taken together, make up a large, directional antenna array.

According to the patent application, the individual antennas can be switched on the fly to individual receivers, depending on which ones are in use and which aren’t. So the company can claim that each tiny segment of the antenna is actually a stand-alone antenna, assigned to one subscriber.  (Note that, in some earlier Aereo press releases and news stories, they do mention that subscribers can “lease” one or more antennas as needed to pull in a signal. )

THE BASICS – RF, VIDEO, AND MPEG DISTRIBUTION SYSTEMS

Now, if all Aereo was doing was providing thousands of tiny antennas that actually interact to form a large, steerable antenna array, that would be interesting enough. But an Aereo subscription also comes with a “personal” cloud DVR, sitting on a server somewhere on Aereo property.

That means the following must happen for you and me to watch Aereo’s service on our iPhones. (a) A signal must be received from a TV station – say, WABC on channel 7 in New York. (b) That RF signal on channel 7 must then be demodulated by a receiver and converted from the 8VSB modulation format to a baseband video signal, or at least an MPEG2 stream with video, audio, and metadata. (c) The baseband video signal or MPEG2 stream has to be re-encoded or transcoded to MPEG4 H.264 for transport. (d) The H.264 signal is then encapsulated with IP headers and travels to your home network and device.

That takes a lot of hardware. In a conventional master antenna TV system (MATV), one or more antennas are installed on an apartment building or office and one or more amplifiers go with it to distribute the RF signals from the antenna to multiple users. Is this a public performance? From my perspective, no, as the antenna system is merely passing along whatever channels can be received with it. The end-user determines what channels to watch and when. This is a perfect example of a “rented” or “leased” antenna system.

In contrast, a community antenna TV system (CATV, or cable TV) uses large antennas to capture broadcast signals and subsequently demodulates then to baseband video or MPEG, then re-broadcasts them on the same or different channels with a new program guide. In today’s digital world, your cable TV provider has encrypted these local channels, meaning you must lease or buy a compatible set-top box to watch them.

That is indeed a retransmission and a “public performance” in the eyes of copyright law. The CATV company charges for its service and sometimes inserts local ads on those channels. So they provide not only a remote antenna system, they also add in a DVR service, their own program guide, and encryption.

This is why broadcast TV stations and networks have largely given up on the old FCC “must carry” rules and now demand a retransmission fee for their content, just the same way HBO, Showtime, and ESPN do. It’s today’s business model, and it is threatened by what Aereo is doing.

For Aereo to have a 100% true-blue, subscriber-controlled “antenna system,” they would need individual antennas, receiver/decoders, and encoders for every subscriber. That would amount to thousands of discrete pieces of hardware and an enormous capital outlay they’d never hope to recover at $8 per month. Their patent describes a way to assign each antenna to a separate tuner to demodulate the video stream to MPEG2. That might work fine for a handful of viewers. But what if 10,000, 20,000, or 100,000 subscribers are watching at once?

There’s a reason why cable TV companies use single receivers for each channel at their head ends: It’s the only cost-effective way to provide service. And they use multiplexers to route more than one IP video stream to customers for the same reason. It is a classic “one serving many” model and  a cash cow for the likes of Comcast, Time Warner, and Cablevision.

This diagram from the Aereo patent filinhg clearly shows that, at some point, multiple streams of decoded MPEG2 video programs are mixed together and transmitted from the rooftop antenna systems to the MPEG4 transcoders in the basement.

This diagram from the Aereo patent filing clearly shows that, at some point, multiple streams of decoded MPEG2 video programs are mixed together and transmitted from the rooftop antenna systems to the MPEG4 transcoders in the basement.

OK, so let’s buy the argument that Aereo uses a few receivers as needed for each subscriber to pull in TV channels and perform the usual RF-to-video-MPEG conversion. But then, according to their patent application, they combine multiple MPEG2 streams into a multiplex (or “mux”) to send them from the roof of the building to the basement for transcoding to MPEG4 H.264 and ultimately, transmission to each subscriber over an Internet connection.

Combining those MPEG2 streams is really no different than multiplexing TV channels in a piece of coaxial cable delivered to your home. Note that, unlike our MATV example, the TV channels don’t exist in their original 8VSB format. They’ve been converted (altered) to another format for delivery to the viewer.

Note also, in the area between the MPEG-2 Mux and Demux, the words “Antenna Transport (N x 10GBase)”. Here is where Aereo’s entire argument falls apart: You can’t receive an MPEG2 stream with an antenna; only a modulated RF channel. Calling a 10 Gigabit Ethernet connection that streams MPEG2 digital video an “antenna transport” is disingenuous. The signal has to be converted to a new format to travel over this part of the network, and as I just pointed out, it is now a bunch of MPEG2 video programs combined together in one stream for efficiency…just like a CATV or DBS service provider would do at their head end.

In contrast, an MATV system simply receives, amplifies, and distributes RF channels intact to two or more viewers. Those RF signals aren’t demodulated or transcoded – they are delivered in their original state to the viewer. The actual demodulation and decoding happens in each individual TV set.

What’s even stranger is that Aereo is now calling everything ahead of the mux an “antenna.” Horsefeathers! Antennas are antennas; receivers and demodulators are receivers and demodulators. Separate and distinct. That’s as absurd as calling a car an “engine,” or a house a “roof.”

For Aereo to truly provide the service they claim they do, they’d need individual hardware and software processing for every subscriber. No more than one TV channel could travel at the same time to a tuner, and no more than one video program at a time could pass to an encoder, especially not in a multiplexed stream. That improbable and wildly expensive set-up would be a true “leased” antenna and reception system, controlled by the subscriber.

If at any time TV channels, baseband video, or MPEG streams are combined together during the process, then it’s a a CATV system. Pure and simple.

SUMMING UP

Again, let me say that I don’t want to delve into the copyright and business model issues with regards to Aereo. I’ll leave that to the lawyers. Instead, I’m solely focusing on the science of what Aereo does, and to me, it’s overly clever engineering, attempting to re-define the term “antenna” and parse legal terminology.

Their entire argument for getting away with retransmitting broadcast TV content rests on those thousands of individual antennas, which as we’ve learned, unquestionably interact with each other and are separate antennas in name only. The rest of the system appears to be more conventional, with receivers, MPEG streams mixed together, and MPEG transcoding – just like a cable TV does, or even an IPTV multichannel provider, like AT&Ts U-Verse.

The puzzler is why the plaintiffs (TV stations and networks) didn’t pursue this technical angle more aggressively in the first place. In the first court case (2nd Circuit in NY), at least one judge (Denny Chin) called Aereo’s system a “Rube Goldberg” approach, cleverly designed to circumvent copyright law. He hit the nail on the head. There was some testimony from an RF expert at the first hearing, but either the testimony wasn’t presented correctly or contained technical flaws. So the copyright violation angle has been pursued exclusively  by plaintiffs since then.

The judge for the 10th Circuit in Salt Lake City, Dale Kimball, stated in his February decision that “Aereo’s retransmission of plaintiffs’ copyrighted programs is indistinguishable from a cable company.” Kimball got it right as well, as did the three-judge panel that subsequently upheld Kimball’s injunction.

And off we go to the Supreme Court next week. How will this case turn out? No one can say for certain, but the odds appear to favor broadcasters with the Solicitor General seemingly arguing against Aereo.

Stay tuned!