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Startup Didja beams free local TV to smartphones and PCs

Five years ago, Internet startup Aereo made headlines by retransmitting local over-the-air television signals to subscribers viewing online. But the company went bankrupt after big broadcasters won a copyright infringement case in the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Monday, a Mountain View startup named Didja, eyeing a growing number of people ditching cable and satellite pay TV services, is introducing a similar service that retransmits Bay Area TV broadcasters — and unlike Aereo, it has permission.

Didja’s BayAreaBTV will start with about 35 channels. But it has one major drawback: The lineup does not yet include the most popular stations that broadcast national networks CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox or PBS.

Still, Didja executives believe there’s enough of an audience looking for new ways to watch community programming, including shows in Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Hindi and Korean, to get BayAreaBTV off the ground.

Didja placed antennas atop its data center on Paul Avenue in San Francisco to receive broadcast signals from the city’s Mount Sutro, San Bruno Mountain just to the south and Mount Allison in the South Bay.

Those signals are then retransmitted to viewers within the Bay Area who use Didja’s iOS or Android app. Viewers can also watch on computers using Chrome or Safari browsers, and with Google’s Chromecast video streaming device or an Apple TV, can beam the video onto a big screen TV.

The basic Didja service is free, but the company charges $4.95 per month for a cloud-based DVR service.

Monroe said Didja’s setup differs from Aereo, which used individual antennas to beam New York station signals to its paid subscribers. Aereo, once hailed as a boon to cord cutters who have given up conventional TV, was forced to shut down in 2014 after the Supreme Court ruled that it was rebroadcasting TV station signals illegally.

The concept of watching broadcast TV on a mobile device isn’t new. A company that once tried to sell a device called Tablet TV to beam TV signals to an iPad went out of business. Airwavz, a Seattle startup, is about six months from producing a smartphone case that doubles as an over-the-air TV receiver, said Leonard Fertig, former CEO of one of the Tablet TV partners and now an adviser to Airwavz.

Didja, which tested its service with independent stations in the Phoenix area, is so far able to offer only broadcast channels that have granted it a license. Monroe hopes to eventually get the major local network stations, which offer the most-watched programs.

However, the big network stations have cut their own deals with online services like Hulu, Sling TV and PlayStation Vue. CBS is banking heavily on the success of its own fledgling online service, CBS All Access.

And Sling TV is selling its own $130 device, called AirTV, that combines free over-the-air signals with its online service.

While the cord-cutting trend continues to rise, those who want to dump pay TV services still “always ask for the big broadcast channels and networks,” analyst Mike Vorhaus, president of Magid Advisors, said in an email.

So Vorhaus said he was “less enthused” about a service that would only offer local broadcast channels, more so without the network stations.

Monroe said many community broadcasters operate low-power stations and are not carried on traditional pay TV systems, so Didja can extend their reach. That’s why Deepti Dawar, chief operating officer of DiyaTV, a network for South Asian programming, is enthusiastic that Didja could be a boon for niche broadcasters like her Santa Clara company.

“For the multicultural space, Didja is going to be huge,” Dawar said. “We want to be on as many platforms as possible.”

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