Pay-TV piracy may be an underground economy but its evidence is plain for all to see on the rooftops of the UAE. Steve Bjuvgard, the head of anti-piracy at Arab Radio and Television (ART), says even a layman can spot it. If a satellite dish is pointing westward, toward the setting sun and, more importantly, towards the Indian Dish TV satellite with its beam spilling over into in the UAE, it is receiving the service without permission.
On a recent visit to Dubai's predominantly Indian neighbourhood of Karama, more than half of the rooftop satellite dishes were pointing west, supporting Mr Bjuvgard's estimate that at least 60 per cent of the UAE's Indian and Pakistani households are receiving Dish TV. "My job is to stop people stealing from us," Mr Bjuvgard says. To fight this, ART's anti-piracy unit is in the middle of an unprecedented push, with the help of UAE authorities, to identify and punish people involved in the illegal smuggling and sale of Dish TV equipment in the UAE.
That initiative is part of a wider tightening of enforcement on a range of pay-TV piracy throughout the region, as the broadcast landscape reveals radically altered contours after the merger of Orbit and Showtime last summer, the rise of Al Jazeera last autumn and the imminent emergence of Abu Dhabi TV. In the past year, the market has seen contraction in the form of Orbit and Showtime's merger; a shifting of power when ART sold its sports rights to Al Jazeera last autumn; and will experience growth as Abu Dhabi TV enters the pay-TV arena after its acquisition of the regional rights to the English Premier League.
Each of these changes leaves the new players with something valuable to look after and is therefore spurring a new round of investment into anti-piracy initiatives in the region. In ART's case, the primary asset that needs protecting is the company's Pehla network, which is aimed at the south Asian community and offers much of the same content as Dish TV. The problem comes from regional rights pricing structures. Rights holders sell their content to the Indian market at much lower cost than to the Middle East market because of the difference in the cost of living.
As a result, a subscription to Dish TV costs about a third of what a Pehla subscription costs, making the temptation to buy illegally imported Dish TV encryption boxes hard to resist. Customs enforcement agents in the UAE have been on the lookout for boxes being smuggled in from India, Mr Bjuvgard says, but the pirates have lately become more wily. "One of the major routes is to sell the box in India, send it to Pakistan, take it to pieces, send it back and it ends up in Dubai," he says. "Then someone in Dubai reassembles it and it's sold. We've had recently more than 2,000 boxes that we know of that came here in pieces."
ART has given Mr Bjuvgard's team a substantial budget - he declined to say just how much - to go after the purveyors of these "grey market" boxes. Part of the initiative involves setting up "stings" in neighbourhoods such as Deira in Dubai that are known to be hotspots for piracy. The ART team sends in people to act as though they are interested in making an illegal purchase, and then alerts the police.
"If you are selling Dish TV in this region, it is illegal," Mr Bjuvgard says. "We have a power of attorney with Dish to stop people legally. The people who sell these dishes, we will attack." Dish TV did not comment. Mr Bjuvgard says the people buying illegal subscriptions, especially those involved in sharing arrangements in the UAE's labour camps, are the primary victims of the crime, since they pay for a service they are not entitled to have maintained or fixed if something goes wrong.
Moreover, the rights holders are victimised, he says, "because what effectively happens is it devalues the product". Meanwhile, Orbit Showtime Network (OSN) is investing heavily in battling a completely different type of piracy created by decoder boxes powered by hacked encryption passwords bought over the Web. The newly merged network is in the middle of a scheme to exchange hundreds of thousands of old set-top boxes for new ones with better encryption technology, as a way of protecting its investment in the region's first portfolio of high-definition satellite channels.
"We are investing in the box to really make our service secure so that it cannot be hacked," says Wisam Edghaim, the head of OSN's anti-piracy team. OSN has also hired the Arabian Anti-Piracy Alliance (AAA), which previously worked for Orbit and Showtime, to tackle piracy from a more punitive perspective. The AAA works with the police to conduct raids on pirates. OSN and the AAA are setting their sights primarily on DreamBoxes, set-top boxes produced by a German company that can be installed with software allowing them to receive pay-TV signals for free.
Dream Multimedia, the producer of DreamBoxes, has an array of services on its website intended to combat the illegal use of its set-top boxes but they still remain a popular way to access pirated content. Dream Multimedia could not be reached for comment. Mr Edghaim estimates there are 1.5 million DreamBoxes in the region. "Most of them are in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE," he says. "But Saudi Arabia is by far number one."
The DreamBoxes, and dozens of similar decoder boxes that can be used illegally, are taking a big bite out of OSN's business, Mr Edghaim says. "For every one subscriber that we have there are three pirated subscribers out there," he says. "It's huge." Mr Edghaim also believes that, despite the efforts of his team and the AAA, DreamBox piracy is on the rise. Such fears have led relative newcomers to the pay-TV game, such as Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV, to call on the AAA for options to protect their own sizeable investments in premium sport content.
"You are getting new players on to the field and they are just now starting to get their minds around this stuff," says Scott Butler, the chief executive of the AAA. "We have never done any statistics or analysis to find out how bad it is but we do know that the levels of piracy are extremely high." firstname.lastname@example.org