Illegal deals dog satellite TV industry

Rogue traders offer satellite TV channels for a one-off fee, and providers say the current penalties are not enough.

Rogue technicians are installing cable decoders for a one-time fee, nominal in comparison to a subscription with a legal provider.
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ABU DHABI // Technicians working under the table are illegally installing unlimited satellite television in homes through internet connections. The rogue technicians are charging customers as little as Dh1,600 (US$435) to install a satellite dish and a specially rigged decoder box that provides unlimited access to almost every satellite television channel available in the country.

In comparison, Showtime charges Dh299 for the installation of its service, and monthly fees ranging from Dh294 for a platinum package to Dh175 for a family package and Dh84 for sport. Its competitor, Orbit, offers free installation of its satellite dishes and packages ranging from Dh50 to Dh179. Customers who take advantage of the illegal services can access a vast range of programming, including premium shows such as 24, Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives, and current pay-per-view films such as The Kingdom and Disney's James and the Giant Peach. However, they have no guarantee that the decoder will continue to function if satellite companies scramble their signals.

Showtime says the growing problem can be stopped if authorities begin jailing offenders rather than fining them. The technicians often run their operations from home or small companies. The National contacted several small shops that had advertised on classified notice boards in supermarkets to inquire about buying Showtime Arabia and Orbit packages. Two of them initially offered only the regular packages at the usual prices. But when asked if there was a cheaper alternative, both said they could offer all the channels for a one-time payment.

"We connect the receiver to the internet, it works perfectly," one of the technicians said. A second offered to sell the decoder box for Dh1,400 and install a dish for Dh500. "You will be able to watch everything you want," he said. Those caught flouting the law can be fined up to Dh10,000, but many believe the trade is so lucrative that it is a poor deterrent. A source at Orbit, who did not wish to be named because he is not authorised to speak on this issue on behalf of the company, said the decoder boxes, often sold under the name DreamBox, were a "major problem everywhere in the Gulf and Africa". The company is working with the Arabian Anti-piracy Alliance to clamp down on the use of such devices. "We carry out stakeouts and do our best to close down those who sell pirated devices," he said.

He added that the small kiosks that sell them were associated with "large criminal gangs chains linked to prostitution and the drug trade" and that "those controlling the trade were almost impossible to track down". "It is the poor man in the kiosk on the cheapest salary that gets caught," he said. Once the decoder boxes are connected to the internet, the scrambled channels are decoded through purpose-built websites, he added. Companies such as Orbit and Showtime Arabia regularly rescramble the channels to beat the criminals, but some of the boxes are able to refresh via the internet and decode any new encryptions.

In June, the Ministry of Economy pledged to take tough action against the importation of illegal satellite decoders and said it had instructed all ports to confiscate any decoders arriving in the country. Copyright laws ban decrypting pay-TV channels within or outside the country, unlike other GCC nations. Wisam Edghaim, who heads Showtime's anti-piracy team, called for "more deterrent laws and stronger implementation of these laws".

"The fines are not working and there needs to be more people being sent to jail for proper lengths of time," he said. Coffee shops that purchase home subscriptions but screen football and other sporting events for customers are also known to be an area of concern for pay-TV companies. Earlier this month, Abu Dhabi Municipality said it would fine residents who had installed unsightly satellite dishes on balconies up to Dh1,000 to help maintain the city's image.