Hacked channels and imported set-top boxes from India are said to be costing television companies "tens of millions of dollars" in lost revenue each year.
Watching pirate TV in UAE? Police are hunting for you
DUBAI // Hacked channels and imported set-top boxes from India are costing television networks "tens of millions of dollars" in lost revenue each year, say bosses.
Despite efforts by police and broadcasters to block pirate transmissions and confiscate illegal satellite dishes, there are hundreds of thousands of set-top boxes from the Indian subcontinent - meaning viewers are not subscribing to local broadcasters, hitting their revenue hard.
"What happens is that people with legitimate subscriptions in India bring over their set-top boxes and watch these channels here," said David Butorac, chief executive officer at OSN.
The imported boxes are an attractive option - people pay far less for a subscription in India but can still pick up channels in the Emirates.
"We need a clampdown on the importers of these boxes as it runs into the hundreds of thousands and is costing broadcasters in the UAE tens of millions of dollars," said Mr Butorac.
"The problem is highly prevalent in residential pockets with a high concentration of demographics from the Indian subcontinent, hence our platform faces revenue erosion in millions," said an official at Arab Digital Distribution (ADD), a regional provider of premium TV.
But the issue is not limited to individuals, commercial businesses also screen movies and sports matches without paying for subscriptions.
ADD has worked with police to track down those using satellite dishes to stream illegal feeds of various channels.
More than 60 buildings were raided in Al Qusais in 2011, with dozens of dishes confiscated.
Pirated channels are usually accessed either through hacking or the unauthorised distribution of premium TV access codes, and through online streaming.
"In 2010, OSN switched to a new encryption system and distributed new, more secure set-top boxes to its customers," said Matthew Reed, principal analyst at Informa Telecoms and Media.
"That move is believed to have cut off many unauthorised viewers and we believe OSN has experienced good subscriber growth since 2010, so it seems this has been quite an effective strategy."
Other TV providers, including ART, have also upgraded their security, Mr Reed said.
But the uptake of premium TV services is generally low in the Middle East, with the UAE and Qatar having the highest levels.
About 65 per cent of UAE households have a subscription.
"The opportunities for unauthorised access is one factor contributing to the low take-up of pay TV in the region generally - but there are other factors, too, such as availability of a large number of free-to-air channels," Mr Reed said.