ART plans to scupper Mid-East pirates
Arab Radio & Television is the largest Arab pay-TV operator with broadcasting interests that circle the globe. But close to home it has - along with its fellow Arab pay-TV broadcasters - suffered from rampant TV piracy that takes just about every form imaginable.
Alan Constant is ART's CTO at its AMC subsidiary, and he says ART, in common with other broadcasters in the region, suffer from Code Word piracy (in the shape of set-top boxes from the likes of Dreambox); and Emulation piracy, which is where users extract key code data from an actual smart card and use the data on a new card and thus opening up a different set-top box to free or low-cost TV viewing.
ART also suffers badly from informal - but widespread - distribution of its signals in places like the Lebanon where cable pirates string their wires from home-to-home in a spider's web of co-axial. Egypt is another nation that is making a growing use of Radio Frequency (RF) piracy of incoming signals in various forms, although ART has itself worked hard to combat RF piracy in Egypt, and with some success.
ART has recently adopted Viaccess for its Middle East operation where, at least for the immediate future, it will run alongside Irdeto's conditional access. Viaccess is not new to ART. They have been clients of Viaccess for some 12 years for North African pay-TV transmissions, and for signals being beamed over Europe. "But," says Constant, "piracy was becoming more and more of a challenge so we looked closely at what the market could offer, and remember we are already users of many of the major CA suppliers. People forget how very large we are. Most know that we have been with Irdeto since 1995, and Viaccess for some time. We decided to buy Viaccess' very latest iteration, their ACS 3.1 version."
Viaccess have come up with a very neat acronym for their new range of Smart Cards, calling them PRAHA (Proactive against hacker attacks), showcased at IBC in 2008 to some considerable interest and described by them as its "secret weapon" against cards piracy in its many forms. This time last year François Moreau de Saint Martin, Viaccess’ CEO said: "The availability of the PRAHA card is the result of the extensive research undertaken by our R&D department and of our commitment against piracy. We are in a growing, competitive market undergoing profound changes and we believe the introduction of the PRAHA card will ultimately enforce our customers' business."
Now the industry can begin to measure how robust the card is. Constant has no anxieties, saying that he is confident that the combined result will be beneficial. "ACS 3.1, plus the PRAHA card, plus our own secure loader will permit me to sleep at night. It is a non-stop battle, of course, trying to stay one step ahead of the pirates. But we think we have a very sound solution here."
Part of ART's overall solution is to firmly take control of its own secure loader within the box. "We are the only people in the world using Viaccess secure loader. It gives us total and absolute control over people putting code into the set-top box. It simply stops people from pirating your set-top box. Dead!"
But ART has invested in a few extra steps. “The box is ultra-secure. Most operators simply wouldn't go this far, but we have decided to go this extra mile because of the issues in the Middle East. Now if we told you what these extra security features are we would then have to kill you," he joked. "But I can assure you that the closing of these final risks gives us an overall benefit in security. The measures do generate a little extra operational work, but we think this hassle is well worth the bother for the overall result."
He says that one of these secure features means that ART itself owns the box's software and IPR. "This includes the box's operation system, that is everything above the box's drivers. We own everything above the drivers. The code was written for us by BS MediaSoft in South Korea."
Owning your own IPR code means that it is very easy in court to prove breach of IPR, but it has been more difficult to absolutely prove piracy. "Now, if anyone enters the box and so much as touches our code we believe can prove both."
Constant admits that there have been extra costs for this all-embracing set of solutions, but he says the extra $1 or so in cost for the IPR exercise was essential to bring their security into line with the best international practices, and he mentioned leading players like BSkyB and Canal Plus as being solid examples of this line of thinking.
The boxes are already rolling down the production line, and the first shipment (from OpenTech in South Korea) are due in the Middle East in the next few days. Visitors to IBC can see the box on the OpenTech stand. Because ART has issued the specifications themselves they can subsequently issue RFPs to any other manufacturer yet achieve the exact-same operating parameters.
The box's silicon can seamlessly handle MPEG2 and MPEG4 compression, and also DVB and DVB-S2 transmissions. However, this is still very much a low-cost box and so is not good for HDTV, which in any case has been very slow to gain traction in the region. ART has plans for HDTV reception which will be announced shortly. Needless to say the company is not ignoring the technology or the prospects for HDTV.
It is going to take time to swap out the complete inventory of legacy boxes, and Constant's team, along with ART's marketing experts, will be strategising how best to exploit the new box as a tool to promote new, as well as renewing, subscribers. ART will also be introducing a Common Interface Module (a "Custom Cam") which has most of the key features of this new box. "The CustomCams will be available to telcos locally, people like Du and E-Vision," Constant said.
Key to this strategy is soccer. Soccer is a hugely important subscription driver in the Middle East, and the region has traditionally paid some of the very highest sums (on a per-subscriber basis) for key soccer rights. Next year is the FIFA World Cup quadrennial (from South Africa), and ART holds the premium coverage rights. In the past ART has conducted some snazzy marketing offers around the World Cup, and 2010 is not likely to be any different.
ART is currently broadcasting the simulcrypt code for both Irdeto and Viaccess, although it is understood that when the soccer World Cup comes around next summer the Irdeto version will be dropped. This alone should motivate people to swap out their boxes in the soccer-mad region. Meanwhile, and for the foreseeable future Simulcrypt transmission will continue for 2010 and beyond. "We remain an Irdeto customer. We use it in Australia, and will continue to support Irdeto."