Snow in Superbowl Forecast for Aereo Users?

Posted By on Feb 1, 2014 | 0 comments

The forecast for East Rutherford, NJ tomorrow evening, when Superbowl XLVIII kicks off, is cloudy with warmer than normal temperatures in the 40s, and a small chance of rain.

But could there be snow in the forecast for Aereo users?

Twitter has been aflutter the last few days with news that Aereo has closed to new user signups in its flagship New York region, first reported by Karl Bode of  Aereo subsequently confirmed it had temporarily closed to new users pending efforts to increase capacity.

Capacity is surely not a trivial thing for Aereo to scale.  Unlike conventional internet video providers, who transmit the same content streams to many users, Aereo relies on technology that separately receives, transcodes, records and streams over-the-air broadcast programs to its customers.  So while a conventional provider merely needs to be sure that their CDN partners are ready to scale with demand, Aereo has a lot of work to do to scale.

Aereo can’t take advantage of CDNs, because they have to stream separate copies of programs to every user.  So scaling bandwidth for Aereo requires actually increasing the capacity of the physical interconnect from their facilities to whomever their tier 1 service providers are.  And scaling capacity also requires them to increase their physical build of servers.  As the user base grows, they need more antennas, more transcoders, and more disks, to serve that user base.

Now Aereo doesn’t need an antenna, a transcoder, and a disk for every user.  Just like a phone system, not all users will be active at the same time.  But lately we’ve been wondering just how much capacity Aereo has actually built.  That is, what peak demand have they built out for?  Do they presume a relatively light usage model, like 30% simultaneous usage?  Or do they prepare for a heavy usage model, like 70%?

The Superbowl is historically one of the most popular viewing events of the year.  There’s a very high percentage of the population watching on Superbowl Sunday.  Interestingly, they may be watching on many fewer TVs than on other days, because of the popularity of Superbowl parties, where many people gather together around a single television.

But for Aereo, the dynamics may be different.  Because Aereo offers a DVR service, they could see high demand just from users recording the Superbowl, to be able to go back later and replay a controversial play or an especially entertaining commercial.  Or they could be using Aereo as a second screen on their phone or tablet, while watching with friends on a bigscreen.

Every recording requires an antenna, may require a transcoder (if the program isn’t being viewed live, Aereo might be able to delay transcoding), and requires a disk with the I/O capacity to record the program.  So even if Aereo’s users aren’t watching, if a high percentage are recording, it could be a problem.

For example, if Aereo has built out for a peak demand of 50%, but 60% of customers actually schedule a recording or tune in to watch on Superbowl Sunday, then 10% of customers are going to be very disappointed—they will get the equivalent of an “All Circuits Busy” signal.  They won’t be able to view live, or their program won’t get recorded.

So is snow in the forecast for Aereo users?  Only Aereo knows for now.  The rest of us will find out tomorrow.

For a post-Superbowl update, see our “Under Weight of #Superbowl…@Aereo Collapses” article.  For more background on Aereo see our Aereo in a Nutshell article.  Or for comprehensive information on Aereo litigation, see our Understanding Aereo page.