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Google’s bold, possibly rash move to support Aereo

Google's Chromecast.Google's Chromecast.
Google's Chromecast.Courtesy: Google

Earlier this month, Aereo—the company behind the controversial DVR-over-the-air antenna technology that has broadcasters up in arms—finally arrived on Google’s Chromecast device and in the Google Play store.

A partnership announcement between tech companies rarely merits a headline, but this one is different. Aereo, which has the backing of Barry Diller’s InterActiveCorp (IACI), is still in the middle of a U.S. Supreme Court showdown over the legality of its technology, which captures over-the-air television and rebroadcasts it without license. A decision is expected sometime this month, making the partnership rather bold.

Aereo’s presence on the Chromecast, a $35 Chromecast “dongle” that streams content from a PC or mobile device to a TV, is only the latest in a series of high-profile partnerships for the service, which has support on Apple (AAPL) OS X and iOS devices as well as Apple TV, Roku set-top boxes, Microsoft (MSFT) Windows PCs, and Linux PCs.

“We said from the beginning that that we hoped to expand Aereo to a growing number of devices,” said Virginia Lam, Aereo’s senior vice president for communications and government relations. “When it launched it was useable on iOS devices and over time we added compatibility for PC for a number of browsers. Chromecast is the latest in our expanding universe of devices.”

But the deal services as a barometer of confidence in the young company, which has drawn the ire of broadcasters who believe Aereo is in violation of federal copyright law because it intercepts local broadcast content and then charges $8 to $12 per month for its delivery to Aereo subscribers—far less than the cost of conventional cable service.

Aereo maintains that it is providing an alternative service to those who couldn’t otherwise obtain over-the-air TV. “We continue to see instances where people are in high rise buildings in cities, valleys in the country or just other geographic areas where they can’t use an antenna on a rooftop,” Lam said. “Aereo allows those people to get that content without being forced behind an artificial paywall.”

A Supreme Court decision, which could seal Aereo’s fate, isn’t expected for a few more weeks. But the company continues to expand its presence to make itself more attractive to so-called cord cutters.

“Chromecast is in the same bucket as Apple TV and Roku in the cord cutting space for providing a stream to those services,” said Craig Elimeliah, senior vice president, director of creative technology at customer experience agency RAPP. “However, by totally cutting the cord you’d lose your local channels. With the addition of Aereo to these services it provides an experience that is a little closer to the cable type of offering. This more closely mimics the cable experience, and in this way could be the next step towards how those devices tied with these services could decouple what cable now offers.”

If Aereo should prevail in the courts, Google could find itself in an advantageous position to take advantage of growing adoption of streaming media services—or at the very least, no further behind than some of its tech industry peers.

“This is important for Google to have experience in this arena,” said Martin C. Lafferty, CEO of the Distributed Computing Industry Association. “The fact is that they are not alone as Apple already has it and Roku has it. To have Aereo in advance of the Supreme Court ruling also certainly outweighs the issues of needing to remove it, should it even come to that. Aereo is on other devices so a number of players might have to deal with disabling it.”

Chromecast support of Aereo arrived a week later than the company originally anticipated. Lafferty said that it’s possible that Aereo needed the extra week to makes tweaks because Google wanted to ensure it could be taken down should the ruling go against the streaming service. “Whatever the delay, it is clear that Google wanted to be ahead of the game if the Supreme Court ends up ruling for Aereo,” Lafferty said. “Google could have waited, but that is not typical Google. They tend not to kowtow to such concerns as they tend to be very aggressive. So it is in character for Google to be proactive.”

It also sends a signal that the technology industry supports this type of service, even if the broadcasting industry does not.

“This shows a realization that Aereo or similar models will eventually be inevitable and better to find ways to coexist and mutually benefit from these technology leaps and new business models,” Orly Lobel, professor of labor and employment law at the University of San Diego School of Law said.

RAPP’S Elimeliah was far more succinct: “It is the poster child for innovation.”