Telcos EPL dispute: SingTel cries foul over illegal set-top boxes

SingTel's mio TV setup. A complaint from pay-TV provider SingTel has thrown the issue of bootleg cable TV set-top boxes back into the spotlight. -- NP FILE PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG
SingTel's mio TV setup. A complaint from pay-TV provider SingTel has thrown the issue of bootleg cable TV set-top boxes back into the spotlight. -- NP FILE PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

Telco complains that owners of such boxes can watch EPL matches free

A complaint from pay-TV provider SingTel has thrown the issue of bootleg cable TV set-top boxes back into the spotlight.

Two weeks after the telco began sharing its English Premier League (EPL) broadcasts with rival StarHub under the Media Development Authority's (MDA) cross-carriage rule, it is crying foul that owners of bootleg set-top boxes who have been able to access StarHub content can now also access EPL matches without paying subscription fees.

In a statement yesterday, SingTel, which claims that its own mioTV boxes are pirate-proof, said it is "concerned" as "our EPL content is now carried on StarHub's platform".

"We have always known that these boxes exist, but they were not an issue for us as it was not previously possible to access mioTV content from an unofficial device," a SingTel spokesman told The Straits Times.

SingTel's mioTV service uses Internet Protocol television (IPTV) technology and requires a subscriber's box to be authenticated by the network before content is streamed across.

StarHub's system works differently - its signals are encrypted and broadcast instead, which means illegal boxes can simply decode StarHub's signals and allow users to view all 100-plus channels without having to pay a monthly subscription in some instances. The decoders sold online cost between $150 and $250.

In 2010, StarHub estimated that there were 5,400 illegal users then, which amounted to a $2.6 million loss for the company.

While there are no latest figures, anecdotal evidence has shown that more of such devices are being sold, with many sellers promoting them through fliers in mailboxes.

The telco, which has about 530,000 households as pay-TV subscribers, charges $33.17 a month for its basic TV subscription. Football fans who want to catch the matches on StarHub's platform must fork out another $59.90 and make payment to SingTel since it holds the rights to the popular league on cable TV here.

StarHub already scrambles signals randomly in an effort to combat the problem. At the end of last year, it started the upgrade of the security technology in its existing set-top boxes to stem the piracy problem. The Straits Times understands that StarHub plans to complete the upgrade by the end of this year.

Some cable TV users will have their set-top boxes swopped with a new one while others will be given a new smart card to use with their existing boxes.

"Once done, illegal set-top boxes will be unable to access the content on our network," said StarHub's head of home solutions, Ms Lin Shu Fen.

In addition, the telco is looking into switching to an IPTV system, which is already available to its business customers.

Technology upgrades aside, it has also been actively prosecuting sellers of these illegal boxes. Under the Broadcasting Act, buyers and sellers of these bootleg boxes can be fined up to $40,000 and jailed for up to three years.

The MDA said that it is monitoring the situation closely.

Citing the Media Market Conduct Code, an MDA spokesman said "the pay-TV retailer receiving the cross-carried content must ensure that it has a content protection system in place to prevent the security of such content from being compromised".

derrickh@sph.com.sg