Though it has gone underground, it is still flourishing by word-of-mouth
By Alfred Siew
ILLEGAL cable TV decoders may have disappeared from the shelves, but it seems an underground trade is still thriving.
A new 'upgrade chip' is now circulating - cost- ing about $20 and available only through word-of-mouth - which allows cable pirates to access StarHub signals for free.
The chip slots into the back of illegal decoder boxes.
The Straits Times obtained one of these chips and found it could access several - but not all - StarHub channels.
Many channels were watchable for only a few hours before StarHub re-scrambled them and the sound was sometimes garbled.
Though limited in their capabilities, these illegal chips illustrate the cat-and-mouse game that is the fight against pay-TV piracy.
StarHub scrambled its cable TV signals in August last year and successfully took an illegal decoder trader to court in April this year, wiping out most over-the-counter sales of such boxes.
However, instead of disappearing, the trade went underground.
Sources said distributors of illegal decoder boxes and chips no longer have shopfronts and sell only to trusted customers.
Several IT vendors, who declined to be named, told The Straits Times the decoders are now distributed by 'runners', who take orders by approaching customers directly, or by selling in online computer forums.
One distributor of computer parts said the illegal decoder boxes, which are usually imported from China or Hong Kong, can still be bought if you 'know the right people'.
A report by the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia a fortnight ago estimated that as many as 10,000 illegal decoders are in use in Singapore, resulting in a loss of US$3 million (S$5 million) to StarHub.
The penalties for selling these boxes are hefty - a maximum of $40,000 and up to three years' jail, or both.
But the profits are hefty too.
When illegal decoders were first introduced here two years ago, they could fetch up to $600, compared to the cost of about $150.
The business is still profitable, although competition has driven unit prices down to about $200 each.
Even though proposed changes to the Broadcasting Act, first read in Parliament last month, mean the penalty for using the decoders will soon be the same as the penalty for selling them, the lure of watching cable TV for free means there is still heavy demand.
Experts said it may be hard for a cable operator to catch pirates who tune in for free, because the signals cannot be distinguished between paying and non-paying viewers.
StarHub already scrambles signals randomly in an effort to combat the problem. And the advent of digital TV, which uses individual ID cards to authenticate individual users, will make it even harder for pirates to crack the system.
However, Mr Wojciech Doganowski, director of technical marketing at Advanced Digital Broadcast, which supplies StarHub digital set-top boxes, admitted: 'There is no security technology that cannot be broken. The point is to make it difficult and economically unfeasible for hackers to break in.'