Free Broadcast TV Streaming Service LocalTV+ Launches in Boston

LocalTV+, a non-profit streaming service, has made its debut in Boston, offering those within a 100 mile radius of the city the ability to stream free broadcast television on their Apple devices. LocalTV+ works off the same legal theory as Locast, a previously shut-down service, by aiming to avoid repeating Locast’s mistakes.

In my latest video, I look at some of the headwinds LocalTV+ faces as it begins to build out its user base.

I am situated just beyond the 100-mile radius required to access LocalTV+ personally. After I published the video I was able to access the service by changing the location settings on my iPhone to provide a less precise address to the app. The video quality looks good and things spin up quickly.

Local TV+ is exclusive to iOS devices – iPhones, iPads, and Apple TVs. This choice is because the developer’s expertise with iOS and helps in more accurately determining user locations, crucial for adherence to federal law.

LocalTV+ operates through an antenna situated in Brookline and possibly other locations around Boston. The service captures the ATSC 1.0 signal, redirecting it to users through a Boston-based data center. It does not have DVR capabilities although I was able to pause and restart live TV on-device.

The service’s legal foundation is built on its non-profit status, established under the name Mass Local TV Inc. This positioning is essential for compliance with federal retransmission laws, as it seeks to avoid the pitfalls encountered by previous ventures such as Aereo and Locast.

Aereo launched a commercial service (also in the Boston area) which allowed users to “rent” a tiny antenna at their facilities to pick up over the air broadcasts. The broadcasters argued that Aereo was no different than a cable provider and was violating copyright by streaming their broadcasts. The US Supreme Court agreed with the broadcasters, arguing that there was an insufficient distinction between its offerings and those of a traditional cable service.

Locast took a different approach, setting itself up as a non-profit and depending on a provision in US law that allows non-profit organizations to retransmit television broadcasts. But these non-profits have to it “without any purpose of direct or indirect commercial advantage, and without charge to the recipients of the secondary transmission other than assessments necessary to defray the actual and reasonable costs of maintaining and operating the secondary transmission service.”

Locast asked users to make a “donation” to the service that was around $5 per month. It was possible to access Locast for free, but free users would be nagged constantly with notices asking them to donate in order to watch without interruptions. Locast used the proceeds of user donations to expand the service into other TV markets and grew to over 2.5 million users.

The broadcasters took Locast to court on the grounds that the law does not allow donations to fuel expansion. The judge agreed with the broadcasters and also agreed to make Locast’s founder, David Goodfriend, personally liable for copyright infringement. Locast quickly shut down after that. In a settlement the broadcasters collected the leftover funds and decided not to pursue additional damages from Goodfriend.

For LocalTV+ to succeed where others failed, a delicate balance must be maintained. Its operations need to not step over the line to what federal law defines a cable system to be. This includes avoiding a paid donation subscription model and ensuring that any expansion is not funded by viewer donations.

Looming over this entire scenario is the ATSC 3.0 NextGen TV standard, which is on track to encrypt over-the-air signals. Such a development, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, would make it illegal for non-profits like LocalTV+ to retransmit encrypted signals, potentially rendering this and similar efforts futile.

Enjoy it while you can!