Football fans in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) will remember the 2010 Fifa World Cup for a long time - many of them, it seems, for the wrong reasons. For whichever team you were cheering for, watching the tournament in this region proved a nail-biting experience due to the fact that the broadcasts were marred by blackouts, scrambled images and other technical glitches, sometimes at the most crucial points in the matches.
As the Cup draws to a close this weekend, consumers who paid between Dh300 and Dh600 for a subscription to view the games may well be wondering whether they can get their money back. But requests for refunds are unlikely to be successful, say legal experts. The Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera Sport owns the exclusive World Cup transmission rights for the MENA region. It charged its existing customers an additional fee of between Dh295 and Dh384 to view the games, while new subscribers paid even more. The tournament was also available to view on cable-TV services in the UAE through deals struck with local telecoms companies.
Fans who had paid these fees to view the games at home, and many others who gathered in public venues (businesses were charged between Dh3,000 and Dh5,000 to air the games), faced transmission problems from the very first match. Viewers were left staring at blank screens for all but about five minutes of the first half of the opening match between South Africa and Mexico. At the start of the second half, the feed cut off again and Al Jazeera started showing the match on another channel.
Despite assurances that services had been resumed, later fixtures - including Argentina vs Nigeria, England vs USA and Brazil vs North Korea - were also interrupted by blank screens in some parts of the region. Other problems included pixellated images and commentaries in the wrong language. A blame game ensued, with Al Jazeera Sport saying that the early disruptions had been down to the signal being jammed in a deliberate act of "sabotage" by unidentified computer hackers, a claim that it has not publicly supported with any evidence. It claimed that later disruption could have been down to problems with customers' satellite receivers, and diverted some complaints to secondary providers of its services.
Despite the disruption, it is unlikely that Al Jazeera Sport will give refunds to consumers over this problem. While the satellite network is obliged to refund consumers who bought faulty cards, it is not liable to provide compensation over the loss of signal because it claims this problem was outside its control. Al Jazeera Sport did not respond to requests for comment when contacted by The National.
Keren Bobker, a senior consultant at Holborn Assets in Dubai, and the On Your Side columnist for The National, says that the Al Jazeera Sport case is a legal "grey area". "Whilst in theory there was a lack of service for the early games, I understand that Al Jazeera has claimed that a third party was interrupting their signal, so I think that customers are unlikely to receive any refunds. Their statement that refunds would be offered was only in the event that disruptions continued and these had cleared by part way through the second set of matches," says Ms Bobker.
"What was unfair, from a consumer point of view, was the difference in price charges to Etisalat and du customers. As users do not tend to have a choice as to which service provider to use in their homes, this seems very unfair, as effectively Etisalat customers were being penalised through no fault of their own," she adds. Du was offering a World Cup package for Dh299, while rival Etisalat charged Dh370 for access to the games. The latter operator did roll out a more competitive package priced at Dh295, but only launched this 24 hours before the tournament began.
Both Etisalat and du said that any refunds due to the quality of the reception would have be pursued through Al Jazeera. "There was an outage only during the first day and for a very short while during the standard-definition broadcast of the South Africa vs Mexico and Uruguay vs France World Cup matches," du said in a statement. "Our customers didn't experience any outage as the match was being broadcast in both standard and high definition at the same time, offering viewers the possibility to switch to the high-definition broadcast channel, which allowed them to watch the match without any disruption.
"[To] date, we don't have any intimation from any service provider or authority on providing refunds. Refunds are only applicable on our side in case customers are overcharged due to an error. However, this has not been experienced by any of our customers." Football fans in the UAE are angry at the lack of communication from Al Jazeera Sport. Jeehan Balfaqaih, a communications director living in Dubai, paid Dh600 for her Al Jazeera Sport World Cup card, but experienced "a lot of issues at the beginning" with poor reception.
"One game was a completely blank screen. But we didn't hear anything from them [Al Jazeera], apart from a message on the screen describing the technical issue. I am angry. We've watched the World Cup before and nothing like this happened," she says. "Did Al Jazeera Sport communicate enough? No - they could have done much more. For a company this big, I don't understand how this could be done. Give us some more information; have the [alleged hackers of the signal] been caught? Even if they were hacked, a company that big should be able to do something about it."
However, Ms Jeehan says she is not requesting a refund from the broadcaster. "We subscribed just for the World Cup and once it's gone, it's gone. If we applied for a refund now, how would Al Jazeera know which games we missed? And how long will it take to get a refund?" Chris, an English expatriate based in Dubai who did not want his surname published, says it was frustrating not knowing who would be responsible for a refund when he bought a World Cup card.
"I was told by an Al Jazeera sales rep that there were problems with using the cards in some satellite boxes. I was directed to a representative of [Orbit Showtime Network], who said that it 'should' be OK to use the World Cup cards in the OSN receiver I have. But neither Al Jazeera or OSN would accept responsibility should the card not have worked. I was being asked to buy the card on faith and, being a football fan, I did."
Chris experienced some technical problems, but says he is not asking for a refund. "One problem we had was that the English channel disappeared - we had to watch it in French or Arabic. And we had the issue with the waves of pixellation and image distortion, and the thing cutting out. It only cut out for 10 or 20 seconds - but that puts you on edge. In football, you never know when the game is going to kick off."