A Surprising Free TV Service for Us Cord Cutters (World Series Edition)

We canceled our cable TV service a few years ago and haven’t really missed it. But there are times being a “cord cutter” is a problem, like when a certain team is playing football and the game is on a local TV station. (We could try putting an antenna on the roof and watch for free — like in olden times — but that’s not a good option for us.)

Tonight being the first game of the World Series, somebody asked whether we could watch it. In the past, that’s meant signing up for one of the services that transmit local stations over the internet. We’ve used those a couple of times (via our handy Roku box) but they’re not worth the monthly subscription.

In search of a good option, I got a very pleasant surprise. There is a free service that transmits local TV stations on the internet. It’s called Locast. They can explain:

Locast is a not-for-profit service offering users access to broadcast television over the internet. We stream the signal . . . to select US cities. Locast has modernized the delivery of broadcast TV by offering streaming media free of charge. This is your right, this is our mission. 

In today’s modern world, we find ourselves in many different settings. Access to broadcast TV is our right. The existing antiquated technology doesn’t come close to meeting the needs of the average user who deserves to access broadcast programming, using the Internet as we do for almost every other service.

. . . many households just can’t get a proper signal to receive broadcast TV. This can be due to geographic anomalies or living in more isolated rural areas. Rather than relying on a traditional rebroadcast antenna, these folks should be allowed to use a modern method of streaming through our digital transcoding service. Free your TV!

From what I can see, this thing actually works. I created an account and registered our Roku box. Lo and behold, there are maybe 30 channels being broadcast out of New York City. Lo and behold, it’s Locast!

The service is free, but they do ask for donations, beginning at $5 a month (a reasonable request):

To do this we will need your support. There are considerable costs for equipment, bandwidth, and operational support that helps run Locast. These costs will only go up as we expand our service to new markets, as well as when more and more people cut the cord to become new Locasters.

There’s actually more to the story. I wondered who’s behind this operation. It turns out to be an organization called Sports Fans Coalition:

SFC is a grassroots, sports fans advocacy organization. We’re made up of sports fans who want to have a say in how the sports industry works, and to put fans first. 

We have one goal: to give you a seat at the table whenever laws or public policy impacting sports are being made.

So in addition to doing things like lobbying Congress and suing TV networks, they are making local TV available to around 44% of the US population. 

But wait! Is this legal? Apparently it is.

Locast.org is a “digital translator,” meaning that Locast.org operates just like a traditional broadcast translator service, except instead of using an over-the-air signal to boost a broadcaster’s reach, we stream the signal over the Internet . . . 

Ever since the dawn of TV broadcasting in the mid-20th Century, non-profit organizations have provided “translator” TV stations as a public service. Where a primary broadcaster cannot reach a receiver with a strong enough signal, the translator amplifies that signal with another transmitter, allowing consumers who otherwise could not get the over-the-air signal to receive important programming, including local news, weather and, of course, sports. Locast.org provides the same public service, except instead of an over-the-air signal transmitter, we provide the local broadcast signal via online streaming.

According to Locast, federal law makes this possible:

Before 1976, under two Supreme Court decisions, any company or organization could receive an over-the-air broadcast signal and retransmit it to households in that broadcaster’s market without receiving permission (a copyright license) from the broadcaster. Then, in 1976, Congress passed a law overturning the Supreme Court decisions and making it a copyright violation to retransmit a local broadcast signal without a copyright license. This is why cable and satellite operators . . . must operate under a statutory . . . copyright license or receive permission from the broadcaster.

But Congress made an exception. Any “non-profit organization” could make a “secondary transmission” of a local broadcast signal, provided the non-profit did not receive any “direct or indirect commercial advantage” and either offered the signal for free or for a fee “necessary to defray the actual and reasonable costs” of providing the service. 17 U.S.C. 111(a)(5).

Sports Fans Coalition NY is a non-profit organization under the laws of New York State. Locast.org does not charge viewers for the digital translator service (although we do ask for contributions) and if it does so, will only recover costs as stipulated in the copyright statute. Finally, in dozens of pages of legal analysis provided to Sports Fans Coalition, an expert in copyright law concluded that under this particular provision of the copyright statute, secondary transmission may be made online, the same way traditional broadcast translators do so over the air.

For these reasons, Locast.org believes it is well within the bounds of copyright law when offering you the digital translator service.

One last word from Locast:

Why hasn’t anyone done this before?

Good question. We don’t know. But we did a lot of due diligence before launching and learned that the technology to offer a digital translator service has gotten a lot less expensive and the law clearly allows a non-profit to provide such a service. So we’re the first. You’re welcome.

Now, if World Series games didn’t average 3 1/2 hours. . .

Cutting the Cord (the Saga Ends)

Four weeks ago, we began the convoluted process of breaking away from Comcast, the cable TV giant that is one of America’s least admired companies. We had a package deal for television, internet and phone service with Comcast that wasn’t worth the monthly fee, especially since we weren’t watching much live television. With the arrival of Verizon’s fiber optic internet service in our neighborhood, it was a good time to consider alternatives.

First, I called Comcast to see if there was a way to lower our monthly bill. They told me that was impossible. Even if we completely eliminated our cable TV service, we wouldn’t save money (the combined price of Comcast’s internet and phone service bought separately would be almost as much as what we were paying for internet, phone and television as a bundle). 

Like Comcast, Verizon offers its best deals to new customers. Unfortunately, most of these deals weren’t as good as they first appeared. For example, to get TV through Verizon, you pay an additional fee for every television you hook up. That makes sense, except that Verizon assesses this additional fee even if you’ve only got one television! I believe this is known as “chutzpah”. (“Since you don’t actually have a television, you can get Verizon cable TV for the advertised price!”)

It turned out that even with an introductory offer, we’d pay Verizon almost as much as Comcast if we got Verizon’s phone and television services in addition to the internet. So our best option was to buy as little as possible from Verizon. That meant getting their internet service and nothing else. The good news was that Verizon offered a faster internet connection than Comcast for the same amount of money (and installation was free).

Not wanting to give up our current home phone number, we then signed up with Ooma, an internet phone company. Ooma doesn’t charge a monthly fee. You buy one of their boxes up front. You also pay a fee if you want to keep your old number. After that, you pay Ooma a few dollars each month (in our case, $4) to cover federal and state taxes. 

Finally, there was the television problem. Many people don’t realize you can still get a lot of channels free with an antenna connected to your TV, kind of like the old days. It’s called OTA (“Over The Air”) television now. The bad news is that the broadcast signals aren’t as strong as they used to be. I looked at a Federal Communications Commission website to see which channels are available where we live. There weren’t very many. even though we’re only 20 miles from a big city. A quick experiment with a borrowed antenna confirmed that we would need an expensive antenna up on the roof to get more than one or two channels. 

That led us to Roku, an internet streaming service. Like Ooma, our new phone company, you buy one of their boxes up front. If you stick with the free channels, there is no monthly fee. And the free channels could be sufficient, since Roku has more than 2,000 of them. The bad news is that maybe 1% of Roku’s free channels are worth watching. For example, about 1/3 of them are devoted to religious programming, and looking at their many “special interest” channels didn’t reveal anything interesting.

The Roku website isn’t very clear about it, but what you get free is easy access to loads and loads of videos that can be played whenever you want. Very few channels have live feeds. For instance, you can watch videos from PBS and the Smithsonian Channel. You can also watch video segments from the network news shows.

For live news, you have the BBC and Sky News (also British) and a strange collection of American stations (in case you want to watch the local news from Sacramento or Little Rock). If you want to watch much live television or so-called “premium” cable channels, Roku says “the service may require additional fees”. However, so far as I could see, the “may” in that sentence always means “does”. If you already subscribe to something like Netflix or Showtime, you can access those channels through the Roku device.

In conclusion, we’re happy so far. We may eventually spend a bit more to add some live television (some sports, in particular), but for now our total monthly payment is $90 less than before. Taking into account the Ooma and Roku boxes we bought, the Ooma phone number transfer fee, and some new internet security software (Verizon doesn’t include security software in its standard package like Comcast does), and then spreading those costs over two years, we’ll still be saving $75 every month.

One other note: I didn’t have to tell Comcast that we’re moving to Iceland in order to easily disconnect our account. Fortunately, once I told them we’d already switched to Verizon, there wasn’t much to talk about.