The first wave of online TV startups is starting to gain momentum: first there was Aereo, which streams broadcast TV using a warehouse full of tiny antennas, and now there's NimbleTV, which promises to stream cable or satellite TV from anywhere in the world with datacenters full of cable boxes. The company is launching a small-scale beta test for just 300 people in New York today, but founder Anand Subramanian says the company will be in five to six additional countries "within a year," and that new locations can be brought on in as quickly as a month. "There's a lot of demand worldwide," says Subramanian. "But we need to start somewhere." The practical implications are obvious: eventually Vikings fans living in California will be able to sign up for Minnesota cable and watch their team lose to the Packers from anywhere in the world.
Users actually sign up for traditional cable or satellite service at a local address
NimbleTV's model is an interesting combination of placeshifting, streaming innovation, and legal hackery; you might think of it as a combination of Aereo and Slingbox. Instead of renting an antenna in Aereo's warehouse, NimbleTV customers lease an actual billing address at one of NimbleTV's locations, and will actually be signing up for traditional cable or satellite service at that address from a local provider. That should mollify upset broadcasters, who've taken Aereo to court for allegedly retransmitting their content without a license — NimbleTV customers will be paying them for service just as they would with regular cable. Subramanian says he's not trying to upset the boat like Aereo. "We're trying to enhance the existing infrastructure of the pay TV ecosystem and take it up a level," he says, noting that cable companies "stand to gain new subscribers they would have never gotten otherwise."
Once you've signed up for service, NimbleTV offers an unlimited DVR with no recording conflicts and smart streaming to phones, tablets, and PCs — the amount of bandwidth you need will vary depending on your device and connection. CEO Subramanian claims the streaming quality is "50 percent better" at any given connection speed than competitors — you'll get "twice as many hours for the same bandwidth," he says, adding that four hours of TV a day will fall "well below" typical bandwidth caps. "If you're watching Netflix you'll be able to watch our service without a problem," he says. If you're watching on an iPhone and send the video to an AppleTV over AirPlay, the system is smart enough to jump up a quality level, and you can set a lower quality level manually if you want to save bandwidth.
"We're trying to enhance the existing infrastructure of the pay TV ecosystem and take it up a level."
I played around with an early beta of NimbleTV for 24 hours and it's fast and simple — although there are some noticeable beta rough spots, the core functionality of being able to quickly sign in and watch live or recorded TV worked without issue. There are also some nice content-discovery features in the mix: as you search for shows you can click on an actor's name and find all the other shows and movies they appear in, for example. Streaming quality was solid, although not great; there's definitely still room to improve during the beta period. But overall the promise and potential are obvious: NimbleTV feels very much like a glimpse into the future of online TV.
The questions, of course, are whether Subramanian and his team can work out how to scale up hundreds or thousands of data centers around the world to provide users with the service they're promising, and do it without pissing off an already-nervous TV industry. And that's to say nothing of users, who'll have to pay their standard cable bills and an as-yet undisclosed fee for the NimbleTV service itself — the final numbers will come in the next month or so. Subramanian sounds confident. "We are literally a service that is trying to complement existing television," he says. "There are very specific pain points that make the TV experience not ideal, and we're trying to fix them."