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Telletopia Aims to Create a Better Aereo

Aereo took on the broadcast-TV industry with an offering that sidestepped retransmission-consent fees and lost. Big time.

By the time Aereo said it was willing to play ball, it was too late — the startup was forced to shut down its service, ran out of money and found itself completely out of business.

Telletopia Foundation, a nonprofit startup based in San Diego, promises to do it better, offering a legal service that can deliver broadcast-TV stations over-the-top to Internet-connected devices, while also offering retransmission-consent payments to station owners.

“If there’s a way to do this and move the industry to the Internet without picking so many fights and making a lot more friends, we think that’s the best approach,” Telletopia CEO and co-founder Gary Koerper said.

Telletopia has met with broadcasters on their concerns, Koerper said, and chief among them, of course, is getting paid for retrans.

But its whole approach hinges on an upcoming Federal Communications Commission vote that seeks to define some online video distributors as multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) that can then be eligible for retransmission agreements. Telletopia, a nonprofit organization, also hopes to achieve that through an exemption from the FCC’s compulsory license, which allows MVPDs to retransmit all of a TV station’s copyrighted programming.

It’s the exemption from that license offers the potential for “a simple solution to an amazingly complex problem,” he said.

But Koerper acknowledged that the FCC vote is the “most critical issue” to Telletopia’s future.

He said OTT services, like Netflix, don’t need MVPD status, but when it comes to distributing local broadcast TV stations over the Internet, “there’s absolutely a problem, and it comes from government regulation” tied to compulsory licenses and how MVPDs are defined.

“That’s what we’re telling them [the FCC] they need to step in and fix,” he said.

Telletopia believes it has a technology platform that will be much easier to deploy and less expensive than the one Aereo built, which relied on strategically placed arrays of tiny digital antennas and an underlying content delivery platform.

Telletopia’s proposed architecture “is pretty darn simple,” Koerper, a former Comcast, Qualcomm and Motorola executive, said.

The plan is to establish local ingest and transcoding systems in each market that can receive the over-the-air TV signals or obtain direct IP feeds from the broadcasters and turn them into RTMP (real time messaging protocol) streams. Those are then handed off to Akamai, which will package them as HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) streams and deliver them on to the viewer’s smartphone, PC or tablet.

The first product that Telletopia has built is browser-based, but creating native apps for TV-connected platforms “is a logical next step for us,” Koerper said. Telletopia is also eyeing a cloud DVR for a “2.0” version of its platform.

While going direct-to-consumer — and hitting on the nation’s 10 million broadband-only customers — is part of the plan, Telletopia is also holding talks with independent cable operators that are struggling to keep video services profitable in the current, challenging retransmisson-consent landscape.

“The one problem for them is local broadcast, so that’s what I think we solve for them,” he said.

Pending the FCC vote, Telletopia’s goal is to launch in 14 TV markets in California in the first half of 2016, starting with a package of local broadcast stations.

From there, Telletopia will look to kick off social crowdfunding campaigns, through programs such as Indiegogo, to generate funding that can fuel future expansion.

“We’re pretty passionate about doing this despite there not being a big IPO at the end of this,” Koerper said.