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Broadband users cut into cable

Some people using high-speed Internet connections have found an unexpected perk: an easy hack that gives them free cable TV, adding yet another facet to cable companies' piracy woes.

When Noah A., an AT&T Broadband customer, dropped his subscription to DirecTV several months back, he joined a small but growing group of cable TV pirates who use their high-speed Internet connection to pilfer video signals.

Drawing on old-school methods to splice cable TV lines for unauthorized use, hackers say they can buy a splitter at the local electronics store and easily run an additional line from the cable modem line for the computer into the television. Without a set-top box, the result is free, basic, analog cable; with an illegal converter or set-top, hackers say they have access to premium channels such as HBO and Showtime.

"I only get (basic) cable. I don't subscribe; it just comes to my house along with the cable modem signal," said Noah, who wished to keep his last name anonymous. He saves roughly $40 a month on cable but spends about $42 a month on Internet access.

"Lots of people do this if all you want is analog cable," he said. "All cable services are run through the same line; they can't just cut power to analog cable and still give you a cable modem."

Cable operators have battled this form of piracy for years, but it's taking on new urgency in the race to build high-speed Internet service. Broadband providers are struggling with costs, with AT&T just last week instituting a price increase for cable modem customers.

Some lawmakers are also pushing Congress to help in the widespread adoption of broadband Internet connections. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., last week said he would introduce legislation to expand broadband adoption across the country to drive economic growth.

In this environment, piracy is just one more headache for cable providers. The advent of digital cable and broadband Internet access is seen as a mixed blessing for operators, bringing advancements to both deter theft and increase it.

Siphoning TV access from cable modem lines is just one wrinkle to widespread cable piracy, but companies such as AT&T Broadband, Cox Communications and Comcast Cable Communications are starting to crack down. All providers say they are aware of this specific kind of theft and are taking various measures to stop it.

Beating the system
Cable companies in general identify three major types of cable piracy:

• Passive cable theft, such as when a family moves into a home where the cable line has not been disconnected.

• People tampering with a converter box or buying an illegal set-top box.

• People making an illegal connection to the cable line, which would include splitting a cable modem that provides an Internet connection.

Cable companies say that splitting a line to obtain basic or premium cable is punishable by state cable-theft laws, with fines up to $10,000.

To prevent piracy, cable companies typically put filters at the cable box to prevent access to video signals or additional premium channels that aren't on a subscription order. The filters are supposed to stop subscribers from viewing channels they didn't pay for. In the case of a consumer subscribing to only a cable modem line, the provider might place a filter on that line to stop the video signal for cable TV.

But a hacker can obtain analog cable access to a television through a computer's cable modem by splitting the line with something like a TV tuner--widely available at electronics stores--at the filter's source. In addition, filters often aren't installed with the cable modem line, so it takes little effort on the part of an experienced hacker.

This is possible because the cable modem line contains the spectrum of signals needed to view analog cable and get high-speed data service. If the filter comes off or is not installed, the Internet access subscriber can run the cable modem line into the television and receive basic cable.

If hackers want digital channels or premium stations such as HBO, they must buy a digital scrambler or converter. Such devices are easy to find. For example, roughly 1,200 cable-box de-scramblers and converters are selling on eBay, priced at $80 and up.

-- S.O.

Cable TV piracy has been growing since the '70s, germinated by corrupt or pliable cable technicians who simply take a kickback to turn on extra, premium channels at no monthly cost. Now, in addition to making payoffs, people regularly buy on the black market the cable converters and de-scrambling devices necessary to access digital and premium cable.

About 13 million Americans get a free ride as a result, compared with the more than 64.5 million paying cable subscribers, according to research firm The Carmel Group. The losses are significant. The firm estimates that the industry misses out on about $6.2 billion annually from piracy.

Industry executives say stealing not only costs the cable providers, but also takes money from public works. Cable operators must pay 5 percent of local cable sales to community services such as fire and police departments.

Scouring the systems
Steve Effros, an attorney and analyst for the cable industry at Effros Communications, based in Fairfax, Va., said relatively few people subscribe only to high-speed Internet access and not cable TV. Those who do are a highly identifiable group to the cable operators, he said, making it easy to install a trap that allows only the amount of bandwidth necessary to provide high-speed Internet data.

"If it becomes an issue at all, it's very easy to stop it; they just install traps on the lines," he said. "No thief ought to rely on this one."

Cox spokeswoman Amy Cohn said the company has discovered some instances in which high-speed Internet customers are stealing cable TV channels, but she couldn't specify a number. As a preventive measure, she said, the company installs traps on cable modem lines to prevent Internet customers from accessing video signals on the cable.

"We're currently auditing our networks to identify situations where traps may be needed and are installing the appropriate equipment to prevent this theft from occurring," Cohn said.

Tracy Baumgartner, a spokeswoman for AT&T Broadband, said the company is proactively trying to prevent this kind of cable theft. She wouldn't explain the specifics of its tactics, saying they may provide clues to a workaround.

In general, AT&T Broadband tries to stop piracy by going from neighborhood to neighborhood and performing a tap audit, which allows it to detect all manner of cable theft. The tap audit lets the operator evaluate services piped into the home to see if any are not being paid for.

Baumgartner said such cable theft typically degrades signals to both the computer and the television, not to mention neighboring connections.

"The drops are not designed to be split," she said. "The Internet product needs a dedicated feed so that it runs as efficiently as it's supposed to."

But cable subscriber Noah said his TV reception and Net connection come up without a hitch.

A Comcast Cable representative said Comcast also performs tap audits to identify customers using unauthorized video hookups. It then gives them time to make amends before disconnecting service, according to the representative.

New fix would not be quick
One long-term solution to such theft would be for cable operators to completely convert their analog feeds to digital.

Cable providers have long used analog systems, which run at a frequency of 400MHz or lower. Basic broadcast channels such as ESPN and CNN are typically run through analog cable.

Now cable providers are shifting their systems to allow for digital broadcasts, which operate on a different frequency from analog. For a true digital broadcast, which can include premium channels such as HBO or video-on-demand programming, the frequency must run around 750MHz.

Cable operators see promise in digital cable because they can deliver more channels with less bandwidth and build in enhancements such as interactive TV programming, video-on-demand and e-commerce. Some are already testing digital, including AT&T Broadband, which started using it in select markets, such as the San Francisco Bay Area.

But digital is also a threat. Services such as Sonicblue's ReplayTV allow consumers to share TV entertainment like they would on an online file-sharing community such as Morpheus, raising fears about copyright infringement.

Still, analysts insist that digital cable can curb the threat of piracy. For one, companies are creating more sophisticated encryption technology to make it harder for hackers to tap into unauthorized channels. Another deterrent is that interactive TV programming requires a two-way connection, meaning that a broadcaster could detect and verify a signal coming back into its system from the subscriber.

"From that (digital) signal, the operator will have the ability to recognize that end user and whether he is subscribing to that service," said Sean Badding, an analyst at The Carmel Group. "This could be a prevention as we move into this (interactive TV) world."

In the meantime, as much as some people take advantage of open-spectrum cable lines, some customers say the providers are equally negligent about taking precautions against piracy.

Amy L., one longtime Comcast subscriber who asked that her last name not be used, said that when she signed on to high-speed Internet access several years ago, in addition to her monthly cable TV subscription, the Internet connection boosted her family's access to premium cable channels such as HBO and Showtime at no cost.

"The TV, including the cable, is literally right next to the computer desk, so when the techs came to install the broadband they just put a splitter on that cable with one leading to the cable box and one to the cable modem," she said. "When the installers were finished, they told me that I would be getting some additional channels,...a normal result of having the broadband access installed, and that Comcast would eventually filter it out.

"I didn't do anything, but Comcast never did anything either. I was getting HBO, Showtime and a number of other additional and premium channels for something like two years for free," she said.

Doug, a New Jersey resident who subscribes to cable-modem Internet service and gets free digital cable through an illegal box, said he believes that the cable operators are suffering at their own hands. He said he bought a new digital box for about $80 that gives him free access to more than 400 channels.

"All the cable operators are suffering from (cable theft) when all they need to do is put in a filter--that would eliminate the issue," Doug, who asked that his last name not be used, said in an e-mail interview. "I don't condone stealing, (as they call it), but I don't see an issue if they don't block it. If they cared about it, they could stop it."