Pay-TV piracy is rampant and on the rise in the UAE despite government efforts to clamp down on the problem, the region's anti-piracy experts say. They estimate that at least 60 per cent of the country's south Asian community is illegally subscribing to the Indian satellite broadcaster Dish TV, which does not have licences to broadcast in the Middle East, and that there are at least 1.5 million illegal decoder boxes in the Gulf.
The result is a huge loss of revenue that makes the pay-TV industry a tough business in the Middle East. "For every one subscriber we have, there are three pirated subscribers," said Wisam Edghaim, the head of anti-piracy at the Orbit Showtime Network (OSN). "It's huge." The scale of the problem has prompted the region's pay-TV providers to make significant investments in fighting piracy over the past few months.
OSN, which was formed from the merging of Orbit and Showtime last summer, announced from the beginning that fighting piracy was one of the primary objectives of the union. OSN is now in the process of swapping hundreds of thousands of set-top boxes for new ones with proprietary encryption technology that will better protect its investment in the region's first portfolio of high-definition satellite channels.
The company has also been working with the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority to block the IP addresses of servers that store and disseminate hacked passwords for its set-top boxes. "This results in a massive disruption to illegal clients," Mr Edghaim said. "You are watching TV and all of a sudden you get a blank screen. If you are an end user, you will give up because your TV is constantly being disrupted, and nobody can live without their TV these days."
Despite these efforts, he believes the use of the DreamBox, one particularly popular brand of decoder box that can use hacked passwords from the Web, is on the rise. But so is the awareness that using the device that way is illegal. "If you go and buy a box, pirates are hesitant to sell it to you if they don't know you, so it's becoming harder to get," Mr Edghaim said. He credits the UAE's government agencies with helping to clamp down on pirates and raise awareness about the problem, but said similar gains have not been made in other high-piracy countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Steve Bjuvgard, the head of anti-piracy at Arab Radio and Television (ART), has recently begun his company's largest anti-piracy push in the UAE to date, aimed less at decoder boxes than at people who sell smuggled equipment to receive Dish TV in the UAE. Mr Bjuvgard's team is planning a series of raids in co-operation with UAE authorities, as well as an educational campaign. "We will drop leaflets, we will put posters, we will do everything we can to educate people, because the easiest way to stop any form of piracy is to educate people," he said.
"We had done that very successfully in Egypt, but we have never put this amount of focus on the UAE until now." firstname.lastname@example.org