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Set-top box technology in Europe

Digital satellite receivers have brought broadcast-quality TV into the homes of many Europeans. The DVB transmission format that is used in Europe is generally based on MPEG-2 and allows data rates as high as 15 Mbits/s, while most of the set-top boxes (STBs) use OpenTV as the operating system.

The majority of users receive their favorite channels via satellite dish, but, in Germany especially, you also will find a cable service for digital channels. In the UK, DVB-T (terrestrial) is common and allows easy digital reception with a simple indoor or outdoor antenna, without introducing the usual multipath and bad signal problems. Most of the other European countries and associated industries also want to establish this DVB-T service as soon as possible because they see great opportunities for running ads in trains, cars or any other means of mobile reception.

Slow growth

So far, however, progress has been slow, and the reason for this can be seen if we look at how the STB business has developed. A good example is Germany's pay TV provider Premiere, which had a major impact on STB technology for a long time. Pay TV started in Germany with an analog descrambler from Premiere for one channel. Leo Kirch, the media mogul behind Premiere, eventually ordered 1 million STBs, known in Germany and in some other countries as the D-BOX 1, from Nokia.

From the outset, it had a modem for some smarter pay TV services, but in practice this was never used. Using the C-Cube chip-set for MPEG-2 decoding and Irdeto encryption, these boxes were available for satellite and cable services, but they could only be rented. At the time, there was nothing else available, so digital TV was restricted solely to Premiere subscribers. Because the box had the Irdeto hardware built-in and Kirch would not reveal the code for his Premiere encryption, third parties could not become involved. Therefore, there was little point in the industry offering alternative digital satellite receivers.

The fact that there were no receivers on the market held the whole DVB project in Germany back for a long time. More recently, however, some new receivers have been launched, primarily due to demand by the many millions of foreigners living and working in Germany. They want to watch their native TV programming that is digitally broadcast and encrypted with schemes such as Seca or Viaccess.

These new receivers have one or two slots for PCMCIA cards that allow flexible setup for different types of encryption. There also are now more channels available on digital satellite than on any other service, and the fact that users have noticed a major improvement in the image quality of a digital receiver over an analog cable or satellite signal has changed the market drastically.

The Premiere D-BOX 1 lacked certain features and was eventually superseded by the D-BOX 2, but most users are unhappy with the latter because it has the operating speed of an old IBM 286 computer.

Then finally, after last year's IFA — an exhibition for consumer audio and video technology — Kirch announced that he would allow third-party access to his service using the new Multimedia Home Platform (MHP) standard, which was initiated by bigger fish such as Panasonic, Philips, Sony and others. MHP should at last pave the way for a multimedia terminal that allows both television viewing and access to the Internet. Although many companies already had tried to offer a PC-based solution for such a box, without the support of Premiere and access to its more than a million customers, they stood no chance. After all, who wants to operate two STBs, one for pay TV and the other for everything else?

A time for change

While the average customer still has a 23-inch TV, is connected to the cable service, is still happy with his picture and is not interested in any smart STB, things are slowly changing, thanks to the introduction of plasma screens and home theater projectors. These displays look much better with a digital feed than an analog signal.

For as long as TV has been broadcast, the home user was restricted to a composite video signal. With MPEG-2, that has changed. Now you can have composite, Y/C and RGBS/Y, Cr, Cb signals in broadcast quality. Most users, and the average dealer, do not really understand what is going on and are getting quite confused over these many different formats.

In the USA, there are simply three connectors — labeled Y, Cr and Cb — that can be clearly differentiated from other connectors. In Europe, however, the Scart connector can carry all of the various signals and must be programmed to the correct format. This bottleneck results in the user sticking to composite for the sake of convenience and, therefore, not taking advantage of the full potential of the digital transmission.

Because many countries share the same DVB standard, some Asian companies, such as Humax or Hyundai, have started to offer boxes in Europe. These boxes are based on very modern hardware and provide the appropriate processing power, so no separate hardware for decryption is necessary.

But such developments have caused a major problem for the service provider. The fact that these boxes are driven only by software, even for the decryption process, allows hackers to monitor the satellite feeds and extract the necessary codes to program access cards for free reception of almost any pay TV service available in Europe.

There is a wild estimate that there are hundreds of thousands of non-paying “black watchers” in Germany and roughly a million all over Europe. Thanks to the Internet, a change in access code lasts only a few hours before the hacked version becomes available again. Premiere, for example, still has not made a profit in 10 years of operation, which brings the whole pay TV-without-commercials business into question.

Uwe Sperling is a partner of Vigatec, a Germany-based manufacturer of HDTV/SDTV up-converters.