If you do want such stuff as films, fictional soaps or other such entertainment in languages other than German, or high-profile sports events, you will therefore normally have to take out a subscription package. Subscription, then, has two quite different purposes: (a) to make you pay for what you see and (b) to stop others from seeing the programs. That is, people who live in other countries. Therefore, while some subscription channels cost an arm and a leg (in particular film channels), others have only a small and nominal subscription price, the purpose being simply to ensure that only the 'right people' in the 'right country' can see the channels. Most often subscription channels are also not sold one-by-one, that would be uneconomical or impractical. They are generally combined in 'packages' of ten-thirty different channels, sold together (perhaps in different levels and price ranges) by a 'provider'.
This is a key to the whole subscription option: you choose a package of channels that is available to you. In doing so, you also choose the provider that sells this package (such as Sky Digital, Canal Plus, TPS, etc.). This has an important effect on what kind of hardware you purchase, as different providers make different demands on the type of receiver that can handle their services. So, the choice of channel package and provider must be made before you decide what kind of satellite receiver and hardware you are going to purchase.

Unfortunately, the demands that the provider may make on your hardware choice can lead you into trouble, not of your own making, but of the provider's. That is particularly the case if a single subscription package does not satisfy all your needs (e.g. if there are two competing providers in your country, and some of the major TV channels are only distributed by one of the companies, and others in the competitor's package - a common enough situation in Europe), so you might want to combine two packages. But while the providers all want you to subscribe to their channels, and may even throw digital satellite receivers at you (literally), they do not want you to watch any other channels than their own, and may even positively block you from attempting this. Sometimes, the commercial strategies seem to be not terribly mature; they certainly change over time. It is to be hoped, although it is perhaps a pious hope, that the development of the market will force competing companies towards at least towards some greater sensitivity to the wishes of the consumers, in letting them make their own choice in what they may subscribe to.

Add to this that the digital market is still very young and also fairly immature technically - in computer language, much of what we are offered in the receivers is beta software, which does not always deliver what it promises. Thus, if conditions were otherwise, it would have been good advice to wait for a year or three before installing digital receivers, for both the commercial and technical situation to mature. But, unfortunately, most or all of subscription channels in most countries in Europe are shutting down their analogue transmissions in the course of 2001, so we the consumers have little choice but to follow them into the digital world, in part as human guinea pigs.

Caution is thus of the order, so it is worth looking into what this means when you are about to choose a satellite receiver. Evidently, which country you live in is the first decisive factor, as subscriptions are sold on the basis of residence (your address). You may live in a country that

  • (a) has no subscription options at all
  • (b) has only one satellite subscription option
  • (c) has several competing subscription packages.
Few countries fall into category (a), but if you live in one, your choice is simple, you go back to the previous paragraph "Free channels" and forget about the rest. A few fall into category (b); principally Britain. Here the Sky package is the only available over satellite, so you either take what they offer, or go for the free channels only (or the digital transmissions of the terrestial BBC etc., which we will not cover here. You again need a card, which you can get for free if you live in the UK, not at all otherwise.). Subscription hardware

Many countries however, fall into category (c), and that is where the choices start to become difficult. This is the case of my own region, Scandinavia (which in satellite terms works mostly as one single market), and I will use that as an example; but similar situations apply in France, in Spain, and many other European countries. These elements are necessary in a receiver for subscription to digital satellite TV:

  • A subscription smart-card which is sent to you from the provider and contains your subscription details
  • This card is put into a slot in the receiver, the decoder or 'conditional access' (CA) element. This decoder can be either
    • (a) a part of and integrated into the receiver itself, so all you see is a thin slot which you push the smartcard into.
    • (b) or it can be a separate module, which you first have to insert into the receiver; and then you put the smart card into the module again. Such a separate decoder module ('CA Module', or CAM) is not much bigger than the smart card that you put into it, the CAM is actually a 'PC card' similar to those of laptop computers.
      • The CAM, then, only holds the hardware to handle the actual decoding; it does not know who you are, and how long you have paid your subscription for, that information is stored on the smart card. The reason to have CAMs at all is that, as we will see below, there are many different subscription encoding standards. A receiver with integrated decoder can only handle one system. With CAMs, you can replace a CAM with one decoding standard, that is from one subscription package, with a CAM with another standard, without needing two receivers.
    • - In order to do this, however, the receiver must have a slot ready which you can put the CAM into. This slightly wider slot for a CAM module is called a 'common interface', or CI slot. A receiver may have zero, one, two or up to four such CI slots for different CAM modules.
      • Unlike analogue receivers, however, you cannot have a decoder completely separate from the receiver, connected with a cable. If the receiver does not have either integrated smartcard slot or a CI slot, you cannot watch subscription channels at all. It is then an 'FTA' receiver for open channels only.
    • - Notice, however, that the receiver must also have a piece of software that allows it to recognize and work with the particular CA module in question. That is written by the producer of the receiver, and is should exist for most CAM types, but it needs to be confirmed before you buy.
The software: the receiver and the decoder

The issue of software in the receiver (which is, as we recall, a computer), may be perplexing, and can be as important as the hardware. Summarily, we can divide it into three levels:
  • The operating system that runs your receiver
  • The encoding system that makes sure only subscribers sees the channel
  • The display system that actually presents pictures and sound on your TV.
If you know about computers, you know what an operating system is: It is the basic software that makes your computer go round: Windows 95, Linux, Mac OS, Unix. Satellite receivers also have their own operating systems, and like the PC ones, these - Open TV, Media Highway, etc., are incompatible with each other, so only one can be used on any particular receiver. However, the difference from the PC world is that those who provide you with satellite subscription packages (Sky, Canal+, TPS, etc.) put their noses in and tell the subscribers: Our subscription package is really meant to used with that particular operating system: We will only approve that you use receivers using e.g. Open TV. Or receivers using MHV, etc. So there. Well, if their package is the only one you want to watch, no problem, you comply with their request and pick a receiver model they like (or they or the installer picks it for you). But if you are one of those who want to combine two different packages, you run into problems because only one OS can be used in one receiver, and the competitors normally back incompatible OS's in their packages. Happily, when it comes to this request for a particular OS, you don't necessarily have to listen to them, as we shall see presently.

The encoding standard

The operating system is the basic software that makes any receiver work. The element that decodes a subscription channel for those who have paid, is a smaller piece of software, which as we mentioned above, resides in a separate piece of hardware, the decoder element (either integrated into the receiver or as a CAM module). The two, OS and decoder, are thus quite separate. There are many different methods for encoding subscription channels. Many subscription packages (such as Sky) have developed their own encoding system, which only they use. Others have shared in the development, so that some systems are 'standards' used by many European packages. Common encoding standards are Irdeto, Viaccess, Mediaguard, there are others. For these, you can use the same CAM but with different smart cards from each provider.

A CAM is thus geared towards one or another encoding standard. But not all such standards have CAMs. Sky Digital, the British company that dominates the UK market using its Videoguard encoding system, has blocked the development of CAMs for that system, and only allows Videoguard decoder elements to be integrated into receivers built to its detailed specifications (these receivers are commonly called 'Digiboxes', and are made by different manufacturers, but thus quite similar). One of these is that the receiver does not have any CI for any other decoder element than Sky's (in fact, they are not really geared for anything other than Astra 2 and the Sky pacakge at all). In this way, the Sky satellite channel (the provider) and the receiver manufacturers have almost completely merged into a fairly tight monopoly that would make it very difficult for a competitor to break into the market. That is particular for Britain, however, no other similar situation exists in Europe.

From two competitors, you can get...

Happily, this conflicts of standards only concern the encodings and the receiver OS's. Once decoded, all digital TV is identical and can be properly displayed on any digital receiver. All digital TV uses an international standard called mpeg2 (known also from PCs) for the display of picture and sound. So, if you have negotiated the subscription decoding with a smartcard in the appropriate decoder, all receivers will display your channels fine. And, for the same reason, any subscription-based receiver of any kind will of course display all open channels, as they are also in the same mpeg2 form, without any frills. The national differences we have in analogue between USA (NTSC format) and Europe (PAL, Secam) thus do not apply to digital. It is the satellite receiver which transforms the mpeg2 signals to analogue, and thus to the system used by your TV set, PAL in Europe.

Thus, the demand that "we really want you to use a receiver with operating system X", which we mentioned above, does not refer to the subscription decoding itself - which is independent of the OS, when you use a separate CAM module - and certainly not to the display of the pictures. However, digital TV can also include options beyond straight-forward display of TV channels, such as on-line shopping, email, pay-per-view films, multiple camera angles at sport events, and so on. These things are not bound by any standard, here each satellite channel is for himself; and these 'interactive extras' are based on the operating system. So, to get these extras, you must have a receiver the channel has 'approved' for you, with 'their' OS and which fits with their services. For the same reason you cannot have such services from two competing providers, even if you pay full subscription to each. You can only get the 'extras' from the provider whose choice of 'approved' receiver (and thus OS) you have accepted; this becomes your 'primary' provider. You can however still, then, watch subscription channels (without the interactive bits) from more than one subscription packages with competing encoding standards, provided

  • your receiver has a free CI slot which you can put a CAM module into
  • you are able to rent or buy a CAM for the relevant encoding system
  • there exists the software bit that links that receiver to the particular CAM type
  • the provider is willing to give you a subscription card to a 'non-approved' receiver and CAM
All of these are 'ifs' and can block you, depending mostly on the providers' politics. They can e.g. refuse to sell you a subscriptions unless you have a receiver model they like (i.e. to stop you from putting the card into a CAM in a competetior's receiver type, or even to stop you from using a receiver with a second decoder slot at all). While they of course want your business (provided you live in the right country), their desire to stop you watching the competition may weigh heavier. In particular if the provider feels it has the 'upper hand', and by forcing you to choose it believes the majority of the market will choose them over the competitor. Some viewers try to evade the providers' various restrictions by receiving the channels through 'unauthorized' means, such as pirate cards or grey import of cards. These are legally and ethically slightly different:
One is to receive encoded subscription channels without paying anything for it, mostly with special 'pirate' cards that 'crack' the subscription encoding. This has been made specifically illegal as fraud in most European countries. It was also a major concern for the providers during the analogue days; so digital encoding has been made virtually uncrackable, any workable card (if such exist) will almost certainly be short-lived. Piracy is therefore not to be recommended on either technical, ethical or legal grounds.
By grey importing is meant to take out a legal subscription in a country where such are allowed, and then bringing the card to a country where subscription is not accepted. This is by common-sense standards not illegal or fraud, as the provider gets its regular subscription payment; but it is a breach of contract (saying that the card shall only be used in such-and-such country); and the provider can and will certainly terminate the card if it discovers it has been exported. Apart from this, it will mostly work technically, unless the satellite signals are so tightly focused on the target country that they become too weak at the other end of Europe. Currently, you can generally compensate for such focus by a somewhat larger dish. How difficult it is to implement such grey exports varies from country (provider) to country.