Illegal cable hookups

I read this anecdote today:

In my husband’s work for a cable-television company, he
encounters illegal hookups that drive up costs for other
customers. One day he arrived at a repair job just as the
homeowner was pulling into the driveway. She pointed the
way to the den, where the tv was located, and then walked
out to get the mail.

As my husband approached the tv, he saw a note taped to
the screen. It read: “Don’t forget to hide the descramblers
before the cable guy comes. Love, Tom.”
So just out of curiosity, how does a cable subscriber with extra “illegal” descramblers actually "drive up costs for other customers? In the story above, the cable guy is arriving for a “repair job”, which indicates that the lady was already a subscriber. It wasn’t a new hookup. That being the case, I don’t quite get how running an extra cable to the bedroom TV drives up costs. I see this as different from, say, illegally connecting to your neighbor’s cable box in order to get the service without paying.

Does the cable company have to hire an extra person for each outgoing signal? Is there a computer keeping track of which shows are being watched and how many times, and the cable company pays its providers based on view counts (which would cause a household with an extra hookup to be getting two shows simultaneously for the price of one, while the cable company has to pay for both)? Is this a bandwidth issue?

What’s the deal?

Running an extra cable to the bedroom certainly does not increase costs, and is not illegal in any situation that I am aware of. What is generally frowned upon is using third-party descramblers to decrypt pay channels (HBO, etc) to which you have not subscribed. You could certainly argue that this activity makes the subscription fees for honest subscribers higher.

This site lists all the bad things that stealing cable can do. If you don’t feel like reading the list, I’ll summarize:

  1. We (the cable company) lose, like, six hojillion dollars when you do this.

  2. And also when you steal Pay-per-view.

  3. Also, there’s these radio waves that come out of cable descramblers that can cause airplanes to crash and dogs to catch on fire.

  4. Did we mention we lose hojillions of dollars?

  5. Oh yeah: every person using the signal on a given circuit imperceptibly degrades the quality of the signal on that circuit. So if enough people do it, we have to increase the signal strength. Before we take that expensive measure, we usually send out service techs to ensure that the cat hasn’t been chewing on the cable.

So, yeah, there’s an argument. And the ethical argument (if it ain’t yours, don’t take it!). If the user in question is already paying for the signal to be sent to their home, however, and is only descrambling the channels they haven’t paid for, I don’t see how that would reduce the signal strength–surely the scrambled signal that’s pouring through your cable is just as powerful whether or not it’s scrambled? I’m not sure that the act of descrambling a signal that you’re receiving can really degrade the quality of signal that others on the same circuit are receiving simultaneously.

Any cable-guy dopers care to clear up the deal with black boxes?

I’ve always chuckled at the “lost money” argument (in any arena). To me, “losing money” means I had the money to begin with, and something happened to it. If I never had the money to begin with, I haven’t “lost” it. Reminds me of congressional budget “cuts”:

Party #1: Let’s increase glurb spending by 15%
Party #2: No, we can only justify a 10% increase.
Party #1: Alert the media! Party #2 wants to cut glurb spending by 33%!
Media: Those bastards!

Anyway, I guess my question had more to do with the “extra” hookups in the home of an existing cable subscriber. The way I read the original anecdote, the “descramblers” were simply additional, unauthorized cable boxes intended to facilitate having more than one television hooked up. I’ve heard the standard-issue cable box referred to as a “descrambler”.

And for the record, I don’t even own a television.

The argument against “Stealing” cable is the same argument against “stealing” music or “stealing” software. The argument relies on several unstated assumptions, or presumptions, depending on your viewpoint.

The primary assumption is that every person using a pirated copy would have paid the full purchase price otherwise. This blanket assumption is an obvious logical fallacy, but the cable, music, and movie companies rely upon it without apology and ignore or reject any arguments against it.

Some people can’t afford the cost, and wouldn’t be paying for the service if they couldn’t “steal” it.

Others have moral or ethical differences with the company or business sector in general and refuse to pay, but have less of a compunction against using the service for free. Some may even gain satisfaction by it.

[end objective mode]

[begin opinion mode]

Ethically, it is indeed wrong. But the corporations involved aren’t without fault, either. In my observations, the industries that complain the most about “piracy” are also some of the most profitable, greedy and corrupt.

Personally, I’ve boycotted cable TV for almost 15 years. The price they charge isn’t worth the poor customer service they provide, their lack of responsiveness, and the content of the programming. They recovered the costs of their infrastructure investments decades ago, and with the advent of digital cable, their operating costs per minute of content are a fraction of what they used to be. Yet cable subscription rate increases continue to outpace inflation by a considerable margin. Congress has had to pass laws to limit them, and it still continues. Worse, I have to pay extra for “premium” channels that still carry commercial advertisements. And I find the quality of compressed digital channels worse than analog cable, yet they charge more for digital service, and can cram more advertisements on a wire.

So, I’ve watched nothing but broadcast TV and rental videos at home for a decade and a half, and now the networks are accusing me of “stealing” TV if I don’t watch the ads they broadcast.

Who are the bigger theives? Joe Schmoe watching the Spice channel without paying the extra $15/month, or the greedy corporations who operate this kind of business? It’s a personal decision.

[end of transmission]

What about the issue of satellite signals relayed into your living room?

I’ve never heard “descramblers” used to describe anything except the boxes you can use to override the limitations on your signal intake. A friend of mine had one, and using it would temporarily (about 24 hours) allow her to view every available premium channel as well as whatever was currently showing on pay-per view. FWIW, she recently recieved a letter busting her on the illegal descrambling and demanding a not-insignificant amount of money in compensatory damages. So beware all you cable-pilferers, they’re onto you!

Nitpick: This is an arguement on how much piracy costs the cable company. You cannot possibly argue that cable piracy isn’t stealing, you’re receiving a chargable service that you didn’t pay for, without the blessing of the person providing the service. That’s stealing.

Whether your theft costs the cable company anything tangible is another matter, but I would point out that modern descrablers and hacked activecards are much more elaborate than they were in the days when you could descramble HBO with a simple variable capacitor in the circuit to eliminate the interference.

It would not be inconceivable to think that such elaborate methods were developed because “too many” people had access to the easier methods and took advantage of them. Sure, 100% of the people who are pirating wouldn’t pay for it if they had to, but 10% probably would, and they wanted the money from that 10%.

I would further speculate that the developing of such elaborate methods have costs that are not insignificant, and can be directly traced to being caused by the pirates.


This seems to argue that theft is okay so long as you are a small thief. Or perhaps it’s okay so long as the one you are stealing from doesn’t have perfectly clean hands.

Far as I know around here the cable company can’t force you to rent their cable box, thus a customer should be able to buy their own box, right? I suppose they might make money renting the boxes too.

Read your Terms of Service.

Every cable company makes you agree not to do certain things, or they won’t provide you with service. Most of those terms are legally enforceable. Some aren’t enforceable in many jurisdictions - e.g. in my TOS, it says that cable company owns (and is responsible for the proper functioning of) everything up to 12 inches outside the point where the wire enters the house. I own (and am responsible for everything inside (and those pesky 12 inches). It is, therefore, quite legal for me to modify the wiring in my house however I see fit. I can change my TV, add a VCR, or add a distribution box inside my house to pipe video to every room. (I can’t pipe it to another house because a separate term makes me promise not to.)

Your TOS probably includes a provision where you agree not to use a descrambler to decrypt ‘extra cost’ viceo channels and services. The exact measures the company can take against you depend on your local laws, and the exact terms of the agreement. Under some local laws, cable theft is a crime on its own. Under many terms, the cable company can take you to court for fines that you agreed to pay if you break certain terms. In almost every jurisdiction, the cable company can discontinue your service, and even refuse to re-subscribe you under their normal terms, if you violate your ToS. In general, the situation is much more complicated because your town or local jurisidiction often has a separate contract with the cabl;e company (e.g. granting it an effective monopoly for a limited time, in exchange for wiring the town, and providing certain civic services). As a practical matter, judges tend to take a simpler view: you were ‘supposed’ to pay for a certain service, and didn’t. If you are (or know) a bored lawyer, you might want to pursue the case, as a hobby, but otherwise, it’s best not to try to lawyer around it.

The primary ethical consideration for decrypting channels is that the monthly cable fee is not the only condition required before the cable company will agree to take you on as a customer: you agreed not to do something, but did it anyway. This is very distinct from the ethical and legal considerations of ‘stealing service’ with an illegal hookup, when you are not a cable company customer.

Most TV sets sold nowadays are “cable ready,” meaning that they can get all of the “standard” cable channels without having a box from the cable company. The cable company has no problem with that.

However, if you want digital cable or any premium channels, you have to have their decoder box, for which they charge $5.00 a month for each box (in addition to the digital/premium fees).

There may be third party digital decoders out there (I’m not aware of any), but for the premium channels, they have to configure your box (either manually or over the line) for the channels you have paid for.

Running an extra cable to the bedroom might not increase costs, but it appears that it might be illegal in NY. “Theft of services” includes obtaining cable TV services without paying for them, and connecting a converter or descrambler to the supplier’s equipment without the supplier’s consent leads to the presumption that the resident getting the service created that condition to avoid paying for the service. I know some cable companies only require boxes for premium channels, but my cable company charges to rent the box (needed even for basic service), run the line and to duplicate the programming on addtional boxes. They are not going to consent to me running my own line and attaching my own box.