Signals refers to the encryption of satellite data streams by cable
television program providers to prevent the unauthorized reception
of their signals by home satellite dish owners. Program providers
scramble the signals they beam up to satellites which distribute
their programming to local or regional cable operators.
the relaxation of satellite broadcast and reception regulations
by the FCC in 1979, and the tremendous reduction in the cost of
satellite receiving equipment due to advances in technology, a booming
market developed for home satellite dish receivers in the early
1980s. These satellite dishes were known as television receive only
satellite earth stations--TVRO. Essentially, TVRO dish owners were
able to intercept, free of charge, cable television programming
distributed over C-band satellites. Though most early adopters of
TVRO dishes were located in rural areas where cable television was
unavailable, cable system operators were nevertheless concerned
about the actual and potential loss of subscribers who opted to
receive cable programming for "free". When Congress passed the Cable
Communications Policy Act of 1984, which specified that it was indeed
lawful to receive unencrypted satellite signals for private viewing,
cable system operators convinced program suppliers to scramble their
satellite uplink feeds. Though they sought to protect the system
operators (their clients) by scrambling, program suppliers also
realized the profit potential in selling programming directly to
the TVRO owners.
early 1985, therefore, most major program suppliers (led by HBO
and Showtime) had begun scrambling. As a result, TVRO owners were
required to purchase a signal descrambler and pay a monthly fee
to receive scrambled programming. Though many TVRO owners worried
that they would have to deal with several different encryption systems,
the industry adopted M/A-Com's (later purchased by General Instrument
Corporation) Videocipher II as the standard for scrambling. Though
the industry was confident that the Videocipher II (VC-II) would
reduce satellite programming "theft," the system was quickly plagued
process of scrambling includes several steps. Program providers
scramble their programs on earth and then beam them to a satellite.
The maker of the descrambler receives instructions from the programmers
as to which subscribers have paid for what programming, information
which it too beams to the satellite. The satellite transmits both
the program and the subscriber information back to earth where a
TVRO owner's dish picks up the signals and sends them to the decoder.
The decoder includes various computer chips which contain the information
necessary to descramble the programming. Problems arose for Videocipher
II when an enormous black market developed for altered descramblers.
To receive free programming, dish owners could simply purchase a
descrambler with one of the chips in the unit replaced, enabling
the unit to descramble all programming. Industry sources estimated
that 600-800,000 VC-II units had been illegally altered, and that
approximately 5,120 of the 6,404 equipment dealers were somehow
involved in the selling of pirated units. And after six years of
program scrambling, it was estimated that only 10% of the three
million dish owners were paying subscribers.
correct this flaw (and to protect their near monopoly status), General
Instrument released an updated version of the descrambler called
Videocipher II Plus in late 1991. Also known as VC-RS (for "renewable
security"), the new units replaced the multiple chips in the unit
with a single chip. Any effort to copy or replace the chip would
disable the unit entirely. More importantly, the units include a
renewable encryption system through the use of a "TvPass" smart-card
(similar to a credit card). Should a breach in security occur, the
encryption information on the cards can be changed quickly and inexpensively.
Major programmers switched to the upgraded system with due speed,
as HBO became the first programmer to shut off its consumer Videocipher
II data stream on 19 October 1992. Other programmers quickly followed
suit. Furthermore, HBO's satellite transmissions to Europe, Latin
America, and elsewhere use the VC-RS technology.
the scrambling of signals has primarily been the concern of cable
programmers and operators, the broadcast networks (CBS, NBC, and
ABC) also began to scramble the transmission of programs to their
affiliates (in 1986, 1988, and 1991 respectively). Defending his
network's move to scramble such transmissions, CBS Vice President
Robert McConnell contends that network feeds are "private property",
and he encourages viewers instead to watch their local affiliates
for local news, weather, and commercials. Though obviously directed
at protecting the advertising revenues of its affiliates, such justifications
ignore the lack of "local" reception for many rural satellite dish
VC-RS is currently the de facto industry standard for the scrambling
of C-band satellite programming signals, the imminent move to Ku
band satellite transmissions (such as SkyPix's EchoSphere system),
digital television, and the introduction of digital video encryption
and compression technologies (such as GI's DigiCipher) means that
scrambling technologies for television transmissions will continue
to change as program providers and cable system operators seek to
maintain a firm control of any "illegal" reception.
Hsiung, James C. "C-band DBS: An Analysis of the US Scrambling Issue."
Telecommunications Policy (Guildford, England), March 1988.
Calvin. "A New Decoder to Foil Satellite-TV Pirates." New York
Times (New York), 31 January 1990.
Pay TV's New Descramblers." Discover (Los Angeles, California)
States: Cable Television