How India's Chet Kanojia is shaking up the US TV industry
- 17 March 2014
- From the section India
Growing up in the northern Indian city of Bhopal, Chet Kanojia and his friends would smuggle palm-sized transistors into school to listen to live commentary of cricket matches.
It may have been his first exposure to what Indians call jugaad - a cheap but reliable solution to problems through improvisation.
Today, he is threatening to topple the titans of America's television industry with what could easily qualify as a master-stroke of Indian jugaad.
From a small office in Manhattan, the 43-year-old Indian immigrant has launched a cloud-based technology that grabs over-the-air television signals and streams them online to subscribers for $8 (£4.8) a month.
"We decided it made sense to bring television online. Wouldn't it be fun to put TV in the cloud?" asks Mr Kanojia.
Each subscriber is provided with a coin-sized remote antenna. The customer connects the antenna to a device through the internet - subscribers can watch programmes on tablets, phones, personal computers and TV.
US TV networks have sued Mr Kanjoia's company Aereo, available in 13 cities in the US, accusing it of stealing their content.
Under US copyright law anyone with an antenna can watch Fox, ABC, NBC and other free-to-air networks.
But these days most people get their TV through cable and satellite subscriptions that bundle hundreds of channels along with these free-to-air channels and charge $100-200 (£60-£120) a month. Cable operators pay these networks what is known as a "retransmission fee".
According to figures compiled by Nielsen, some 100 million of the 114 million US homes with TV subscribe to cable, satellite or fibre-optic pay TV systems.
The Economist magazine says the big four broadcast networks alone earned $1.3bn (£0.8bn) from "retransmission fee" paid by cable operators.
Aereo is being called the party-spoiler for TV networks as it threatens their valuable source of income.
It cuts out the cable operator from the picture and the TV networks do not get any retransmission fee.
"We are not a cable company. We just provide the technology to the consumer," says Mr Kanojia.
He says his invention is driven by consumer habits.
The majority of his subscribers watch shows carried by free-to-air networks on the device of their choice, he says.
Companies like Netflix and Hulu offer previously-aired content online but not live news and sports like Aereo does.
June Besek of Columbia Law School says the broadcasters are angry because Aereo is capturing and retransmitting their signals and not paying any licence fee for that.
"Aereo says they have give an antenna to each individual user. So according to Aereo, if you have 100,000 people watching the World Series, through individual antennas, it's still a private performance," she says.
But broadcasters want Aereo to pay for retransmitting what they regard as a "public performance" and that's at the heart of the legal battle.
Mr Kanojia says the challenges are tough and the most significant is the legal challenge as it's "existential".
"But then the funny thing about upstarts is they like to beat the challenge," he says.
He sold his previous company, which helped target advertisements to TV viewers, to Microsoft for a reported $250m.
Aereo has attracted $97m in venture-capital funding. One of the backers is media baron Barry Diller who helped launch Fox Broadcasting Company.
By his own admission, Mr Kanojia, son of a businessman father and a teacher mother, was not bright but "hard-working".
Hanging out with friends in Bhopal, he did "all the things that young men do".
He picked up a degree in mechanical engineering from the National Institute of Technology in Bhopal before moving to the US in 1991 for a masters in computer systems engineering.
Today he is a workaholic who manages with four hours of sleep and rarely misses his morning run.
So is Aereo about earning more money?
"It's not about money. I have made a few bucks and have a very modest and balanced lifestyle," he says.
"If they gave out medals for accomplishment, it might be a better system because the trappings for other things wouldn't get in the way," says Mr Kanojia.
Aereo's case comes up for hearing in the US Supreme Court in April.
"Am I nervous? I will be a fool not to be," he says.
But then his mantra for life is: "I love the journey. I am more fearful about the journey ending as opposed to the outcome".