June 3, 2002 4:00 AM PDT

Broadband users cut into cable

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."

21 comments

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not exactly true...
It seems that the cable companies are quite capable, if they wish, to block TV signals from entering a coax cable for cable modem use only.

Noah is incorrect. It has nothing to do with "power" and everything to do with the frequencies used for the system. The analog cable TV comes down the coax at approx. 50 MHz to 550 MHz (higher on newer systems). Filters can be insterted into the coax line at the point it is tapped from the main feed to block these frequencies, and many cable companies do exactly that.

The cable modem uses frequencies between 5 and 45 MHz to send data back to the cable office, and frequencies somewhere between 600 and 850 MHz (higher on newer systems) to send data from the central office to the cable modem.

It is very easy to block all other frequencies. Unfortunately, the cost of the filters is not cheap, and it requires a truck to go to the person's house to install the filter on the cable tap to that house. On average, this can cost a cable company $100 or more if not done at the install time.

However, I do not buy the "loss" figures of the cable comapnies as most of these people would not buy the service they steal if they had to, so little lost revenue actually realized. Perhaps this is why so many cable companies do not actually spend the money to install these filters in the first place.
Posted by orubin (5 comments )
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works for me
Well in that case, thank God for lazy technicians and cheap cable companies. :)
Posted by kevjohn2007 (4 comments )
Link Flag
Granted its a free country and everyone has as much of a right as an other guy to essentially "make it"! However having worked for a cable company (TimeWarner), and experienced how they do business...., I just feel they are "riding a wave" of prosperity and charging all outdoors for it and don't have safe guards built in because they are lazy and since not enough peope take advantage of this oversight, they just accept it!!

Thanks for the info above on the different frequency spectrums this stuff comes down the line in! I have a question! Are the converter boxes we get in preparation of the shift to digital, necessary for a 12 year old flat screen TV? (I think it s magnavox, but I'm not home and actually can't remember)! And what is it doing? Is it converting the digital to analog or just allowing a pass thru? Its a bit confusing as this converter has an input for cable, but the output s just three single prong plugins connectors that is NOT in anyway accepting of another cable input on the tV! This TV does have the color coded connectors for these lines, but nothing happens! So, like what is going on here? IS it digital in and analog out or Digital in and digital out? And how does descrambling of digital work in here? Do old analog descramblers work or are they just junk now and are descrambling of digital just not possible anymore?

Thanks in advance!
Posted by Not-very-nice-Cable-Guy (1 comment )
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also - let us not forget that in feb2009 there will be no more Analog signal- that most cable comanies do not block if you sign up for just internet service- cable companies are already blocking the Digital frequencies.........after Feb2009 you will not be able to steal the basic cable, by signing up for just the internet service anymore.......
Posted by kippinski02 (1 comment )
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Wrong. Feb 2009 has nothing to do with analog cable.
Posted by sbs9 (1 comment )
Link Flag
I'm afraid you are all wrong not only are the over the air ch's going digital but we are also going digital and all ch's eventually.On top of that it is switched digital which will require you to have a 2 way communication just like a modem to get any channels. But I am sure if there are a few dollars in it someone will try to steal it someway. And as mentioned above these people short their city money from lost sales. It also degrades your neighbors signal and causes all kinds of problems. It all adds up to higher cable bills. So don;t ***** next time your bill goes up 2$ if you or someone you know is or has stolen cable. It is theft Period. We even have the right to confiscate any equipment illegally hooked up on top of the fine. So go ahead. I catch you guys every day. (Maintenance tech for major cable company)
Posted by satt1313 (10 comments )
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Is that why the signal coming in is sometimes around 50db, so you can make up for all the illegal connections in the line. Or is that because cable techs need an education in proper line tapping. I think cable TV companies owe free cable to every one for burning up so many coaxial inputs on TV'S.
Posted by coaxcowbay (1 comment )
Link Flag
If companies didn't charge an arm and a leg for the most basic features and then lie about it in the fine print, people wouldn't steal. Whats the saying, do unto others as you would like them to do unto you? If the cable companies keep ******** on their consumers, its only right they get shat on.
Posted by cpuwizard9225 (1 comment )
Link Flag
A decent discussion and article. While I feel for the cable companies and Ms. Cohn, the article does not point out that the cable companies themselves are freely stealing from their customers by acts of ommission or blatant fraud.

I recently returned my hd-dvr comcast box to Comcast after my cable+plus+internet bill topped $165.00 for only one premium channel (HBO). I am a child of the 70's and have vague memories of roof-top antennas and free t.v. - the way God meant it to be (joke). I set up an antenna in my attic and began receiving better HD pictures than comcast could provide through their box, for free. I still need internet, so I went back to Comcast to price just internet (currently $42.00 per month). They claimed it could not be given withou cable t.v., but agreed to give me basic service for $10.00 more. And no, I don't steal, so I do not do anything more than get my basic cable.

But, I have since noticed advertisements from Comcast, scaring people about the upcoming switch to digital, stating 'if you know somebody without cable, be sure they sign up for cable before the switch so that they do not lose their signal." Now that is as much a lie (or theft of the truth as my mom would say) as those splitting signals for basic cable.

In addition to this, cable comanies chage an "HD" fee - even to those with basic cable. Put differently, cable comanies currently charge customers for something they already receive free over the air (remember, the broadcast spectrum belongs to all of us, not to any cable company) simply because they can - knowing ignorance is more prevalent than knowlege in this world. It is, nonethless, dishonest on the part of the cable company.

So taken together, the companies are are just as culpable of being dishonest as the people this article highlghts. For, with regard to both groups, their dishonest is a product of exploiting knowlege that they know the majority of the public does not have, and being okay with it.
Posted by alykel (1 comment )
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OK so let me get this straight. You always hear about how the cable companies are only responsible for the connections up to your house. Anything beyond that is your responsibility if it breaks or doesn't work, they don't come out and pay for it. Not to mention they are your cables located in your house. You even buy your cable modem these days and own it.

Now if the cable companies are sending a signal to "your house and to your wires" then how you split it inside your house and use it is up to you. They should have absolutely no say in it.

Now if you are out climbing the poles and splitting wires and stuff to get a free signal. That is obviously wrong.

But If i am paying them to send a cable signal into my house and it allows me to get internet, great. If I have a outlet that I own in my house and I plug my TV into it, and the cable company just happens to be also sending a signal to that plug, a signal that was connected by one of their employees or a tech they pay...well then tuff stuff I am going to let my TV receive the signal.

I am paying for the signal. And I will use the signal how ever I want while its in my house.

Plus now Time Warner doesn't even offer a basic cable package. You can get Digital Cable. You can get Internet. And you can get a bundle of both. I don't want or need all those channels. Besides they build in the price f the basic cable in the 50 dollars they charge for internet. And on my account online it even says "internet and cable" but I only asked for internet, if they give me free cable well Happy Birthday to me.
Posted by cabledudedude (1 comment )
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There's no true way to tell the profit from Cable providers. If we use the signal piped into our homes or business for our own purposes and siphon off analog (or digital) signals for other purposes, is it hurting their profitability? Of course it is. Are they still going to make a profit? Of course they are. It's really an issue of ethics and nothing else. Besides ,if all the cable providers were to go "belly up", why wouldn't the government provide them with a huge bailout plan?
Posted by clouds_N_waves (1 comment )
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What I don't understand is how the cable companies got away with duping the American public with their products and services and why there hasn't been a backlash from this behavior. I remember when cable was commercial free because it was a premium pay service and they made their revenues from subscription fees. After everyone jumped onboard and the networks and t.v. stations started to jump onboard as well things went south. All the sudden you start seeing commercials and even worse the infomercials that run from 1:00 am until morning. I stay up late at night many times due to insomnia and other issues. I don't want to watch a damn infomercial when I am paying for cable t.v. Give me my programming I am paying for and get this crap off of cable.
Posted by grunt0946 (1 comment )
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Okay this article is 8 years old people. Now days cable companies just charge you more if you only have internet and no cable than if you have internet and add basic cable. You save about $10 per month by adding basic cable. Just dumped all my worthless cable down to basic and I am saving $100 dollars per month. I had everything except premium channels. Comcast has a monopoly in Oakland, CA for high speed internet, it sux we need some competion to get their prices down.
Posted by husthebus (1 comment )
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Solution: If the greedy Cable companies would lower there prices---"BANG" no more stealing of service. How many Cable companies do you know that went "belly up". Or did I hear this right---Comcast has made so much money that they are biding for Gereral Electric, "Duh". I thought we own the airways---why are we getting ripped off by paying for something that is suppose to be free.....And if we pay for it, then why are we forced to watch commericals that they get paid for...PASS THE KY
Posted by jerryobagelman (1 comment )
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I stumbled upon this article, and it?s on the old side but I see some recent posts?

Back in January of 07 we here ordered satellite TV (a dish on our roof that leaks now where they put it) and we had never had it before. The tech said we could call after a few months and tell them we were canceling the cable and wanted to keep the internet. He said to say we were going with the local cable provider in our area. This guy told us EXACTLY what to do to get our cable for free! I was very dissatisfied with the service though obviously for the lack of knowledge on installation by the tech guys. I don?t know if it was the high winds or what but we?d always lose the signal so it would always go down, and this was when we were paying for it!

We called on the local cable provider to order service but then called to cancel the appointment for hooking up cable. Again, very dissatisfied with their CS dept. We were informed we?d have to get boxes for every TV we wanted to watch cable on. I did not want to do that.

The cable guy showed up and we told him we had called to cancel. Apparently no one had informed him. He announced that he could (for a small price) hook it up for us, and if in the future we were to get disconnected, just to call him back and he?d connect it again for us.

To this day, I figure I have saved at least twenty five hundred dollars for basic cable. It?s a bunch of BS that the cable companies say that don?t have analog cable anymore and all they have is digital and we all NEED a box. I don?t NEED to pay them $5 a month to rent one of those things, times four TVs! That?s another twenty bucks a month (before taxes) on top of the regular bill! So it?s like I have to pay twice just to use their service!

I did my own research and found out that the cable companies can offer analog cable but they want to charge us additional fees in order to get their digital cable. They don?t have to charge for the boxes but they do. We could get our own boxes but then they say only THEIR boxes can be used. Face it, any ways we come up with to try to save money, they are always there to tell us we can?t do this or that.

I have all analog TVs, no converter boxes and I never saw any kind of glitch when TV supposedly switched over to digital. Heck I even still pay $6.95/mo for basic cable! I am not in any way dying to get all this new technology. I live way outside the city so getting signal is difficult. I just want to be able to watch TV the way we all used to be able to watch it?.for free.
Posted by marcost10 (1 comment )
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Some of the posts above are wrong, Actualy if you order internet service only you will get basic digital cable in the stream this happened at a friends house, they say a filter installed at outside box will stop that but we didn't see any filter on the line though.
Posted by dellsam34 (2 comments )
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One more thing the commonely called basic digital cable which is in clear QAM is suppose to be free, when you hook up your cable QAM ready TV or box that is not illegal as long as it's not scrambled don't listen to the cable company scary tactics.
Posted by dellsam34 (2 comments )
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Stefanie, tried to email you from the link on your name above. Cox rejected it and sent me an error message. So, I will post it here.

Here let me help you break a story wide open...

13 years ago, my wife and I moved into an up scale housing development in Scottsdale Arizona. Along with this up scale area, we were required to pay Home Owners Dues. Part of those dues went to may for my basic Cable connect with Channels 2-99 from Cox located here in Phoenix. Now, at the time, like probably the rest of the 3100 homeowners with my development, I wanted more channels then 99 and if I was not mistaken, most of the 99 channel you would never watch. So, I went to my local Best Buy store to buy a new TV and a refrigerator for the house and low and behold, there was a Cox representive in the TV section of the store. I told him that I was interested in more channel and at that moment he said...do you have your phone service and internet connected at the house. I told him no, but I mentioned that it was a new home and it was wired for that.

He ask me what housing development I was in and I told him the name of the development. The next thing out of his mouth was..."You know, if you go with our BIG THREE, the bundle package, you will get a bundle discount!" Wow, that pretty cool, most people are into saving money right? Wrong! Last month my HOA decided to stop offering the basic 2-99 channels and told us that we would have to go to Cox directly starting in December (6 or 7 days ago) So, before the change, I called Cox to talk about reducing my service because I was working out of state for the next few months and I only wanted the basic cable, and internet with no phone.

So, he tells me over the phone that that if I get the big three, I would get the bundle discount. So, I kindly told him that wasn't a good sales tool on me because I have had their bundle for 13 years and I already get a discount. He says..."I sorry to tell you that because you were with a home ownership, you did qualify for the bundle discount. So for 13 years I have over paid by about $5,500 dollars because they told me that I was going to get a discount but I never did. So, here's the $97 dollar question...if 1/3 of the 3100 home owners were like me and wanted to get more then 99 channels, that's a 1000 families like me. So, lets add the "000" to the end of that number and that means that $5,500,000 dollars worth of families got screwed.

Ok, how many other developments are in the same boat? I called Cox and they told me that yes, they did have a bundle discount back then 13 years ago, but they would know what those were that far back. But they could give me two month for free if I liked. So what do you think about this? You can contact me if you like at coach@passthepuck.net
Posted by headcoach7825 (5 comments )
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$$$$$ for... Bridezillas, The Kardashians, Crab fishermen, Loggers, & all the other crap reality shows that dominate basic cable (& broadcast tv). Thumbs down to cable, Thumbs up to the internet & Netflix & Amazon on demand.
Posted by jjimmm0437 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
"Stealing" I am paying for the signal that comes into my house. No matter what it's intended use, they are providing the signal and by their own admission know that it is available. You can't steal something they are giving you. If I sell you a car with a full tank of gas, did you steal the gas?
Posted by NRAMember (2 comments )
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These people who feel the need to splice cable are the reason why I can't get internet access at all without paying for internet. With Charter Cable (Illinois) I attempted to go internet only because I don't watch television at all and they were the only ISP in the region. The result was that they installed a trap shortly after with blocked more than just the television. I ended up going through repeated service calls, replacing trap after trap. The best trap lasted maybe 3 weeks before going bad. When the trap goes bad I have no internet access at all. The traps are very easily broken by simple weathering. Charter refused to provide Internet Access without trapping the line. They claimed each time there was no way of knowing the exact cause without a service call, and each time the tech would have to put a new trap on the line, so I ended up getting basic cable. Immediately after the issue stopped but after a few months the cable bill went up and I tried cutting it out again. They then put a new trap on the line and now I have no internet access again. Tomorrow they are coming to replace it again and again.

I don't understand why a company will spend thousands of dollars on service calls just to keep a customer from possibly stealing cable. I mean, why would anyone even bother stealing 12 channels?
Posted by Elliander (34 comments )
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