Satellite Juice

Ecstasy use and TV-signal piracy are as common as jaywalking

In fact some believe DirecTV (the leading satellite TV provider with about 10.3 million subscribers) has been purposely ignoring "signal theft" in order to boost sales and market share. At this past summer's Satellite Broadcasting & Communications Association's annual conference in Nashville, Charlie Egren, head of EchoStar (with 6.4 million subscribers, DirecTV's chief rival and, if current congressional antitrust hearings go its way, its new owner), said as much.

"We've done some stupid things as a company but not that stupid [as DirecTV]," Egren told reporters at the conference, angry that his competitor continued to allow chains such as Wal-Mart and Kmart to sell its dishes without simultaneously requiring consumers to become DirecTV subscribers. Why else would people buy the equipment without any service, Egren wondered, unless they were going to use a black-market access card? "We could sell a lot of systems too, if we don't make people hook them up and pay for them," he concluded wryly.

Back at the Floridian, Kulchur was provided with several reliable sources only too happy to bring Egren's fears to life. One helpful gentleman -- we'll call him Mr. Big -- even cheerfully offered to drive out to Kulchur's apartment and hook up the whole shebang for an additional $75.

Fred Harper

"Most people can install it themselves though; it's real simple to do," Mr. Big explained, admitting that he felt a bit sheepish about charging a $75 labor fee for something he was sure Kulchur could do on his own in about ten minutes. Instead, if Kulchur was willing to drive out to Big's North Miami space (as several of Kulchur's referrals had done), he would provide the pizza-sized dish, the receiver, an access card, and easy-to-read instructions, all for $250. Best of all, if DirecTV rescrambles its signals (as it already had done twice this past fall), Mr. Big would reprogram the access card for $30.

"If the card goes down, you can bring it back to me, or" -- and this would no doubt be convenient for the corporate man on the go -- "send it by mail. I'll fix it, no problem."

Unless it was fewer than 30 days since the last rescrambling. In that case it fell under Mr. Big's warranty program and was free.

Um, Mr. Big, is it okay to talk about all this on the phone?

"Just be brief," he reassured Kulchur, adding in a soothing tone: "Whenever you're ready to do this, you've got my number, just let me know."

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