Portals: Canadian viewers are debating right to see U.S. fare

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You can't get the Tennis Channel in Canada. Almost as distressing, you can't get HBO, MTV, ESPN, Showtime, Nickelodeon and a number of other popular U.S. channels.

More precisely, you can get these channels here, but you have to hook up with one of the many distributors who quietly sell equipment that allows the pirated reception of a U.S. satellite-television service, namely Dish Network, run by EchoStar Communications. Either that or you have to pay your bill using a U.S. address, to make the satellite-television company think you are in the U.S. Both are illegal.

Scamming the satellite-television company, of course, is a problem in the U.S. and other countries. But it seems epidemic north of the border. Estimates of the number of Canadian homes with unauthorized satellite service go as high as 700,000 or more -- a lot for a country of 33 million.

Why all the shenanigans to watch television? A lot of popular U.S. content is carried on Canadian television systems and channels, but U.S. satellite services provide more choice and more foreign-language programming. In recent years, Bell Canada's ExpressVu satellite-television service, chockablock with Canadian content (and plenty of pornography), also has been pirated.

Canadian laws prevent U.S. satellite services and various U.S. channels from operating in Canada to protect the local industry. But those laws haven't stopped U.S. signals from spilling over the border, or underground tech whizzes from finding ways to crack scrambled signals. (Since 2004, DirecTV Group has kept its system foolproof.)

This cat-and-mouse game has been going on for years. Many Canadians are hoping for a showdown. Quebec resident Jacques D'Argy, charged in 1998 with selling a DirecTV satellite system, has been battling the case ever since, arguing that the country's constitution gives citizens the right to watch foreign television. "I'd say there's a fair shot" that the Supreme Court will hear the controversial case, says technology lawyer Sunny Handa of Montreal.

Meanwhile, these are dangerous times for satellite pirates. EchoStar and other satellite-television providers, along with Canadian law-enforcement officials, have stepped up their crackdown on businesses and individuals supplying satellite gear. In September, EchoStar, Bell ExpressVu and their signal-security partner NagraStar, arranged police-assisted raids of stores and homes across southern Ontario, confiscated thousands of piracy devices and shut down 17 related Web sites. The same month, five Quebec men were charged with fraud and theft of satellite signals after law-enforcement officials seized the equivalent of about $290,000 worth of piracy equipment and traced $1.15 million of related revenue. The police warned illegal satellite viewers in a news release not to participate in "this social evil."

Ripping off a satellite signal is wrong. But is it evil to allow legitimate competition? It would have been nice to watch Roger Federer take out Fernando Gonzalez live at the Masters Series Madrid final one recent Sunday morning on the Tennis Channel. The local sports channel showed a midnight replay. I set up the recorder and then tried to avoid learning the outcome before watching. An inadvertent look at a paper ruined the surprise.

In this age of global media and competition, what purpose is served by laws that ban outright U.S. satellite television and many popular U.S. channels from Canada's airwaves?

"It's the government telling us that we are prohibited access to expression that comes from a source outside of the country," says Ian Angus, a lawyer who has long represented various satellite distributors in Canada. Canada's broadcast industry has "a history of protectionism bred into the culture," he says.

Defenders of the Canadian restrictions say they are needed to ensure the country sustains a viable domestic market for homegrown writers and actors. The laws also help keep the modest-size Canadian broadcasting industry financially healthy, says ExpressVu President Gary Smith. Whether viewers of U.S. satellite are paying for the service or not, "they all represent leakage of value from the Canadian broadcasting industry," he says.

Yet, opponents of the bans say the U.S. and Canada have free trade in everything from oil to orange juice, and Canada has prospered, so why not television? They would prefer taxing foreign services, or bundling local and foreign channels.

Outside of Vancouver, Richard Rex's Can-Am Satellites store sells DirecTV and Dish Network systems to anybody who wants one. Even though he lost a court battle against ExpressVu several years ago, nobody has shut him down. He thinks the broadcast industry doesn't want him to test the constitutionality of laws that ban foreign television signals. An ExpressVu spokeswoman declined to comment specifically on the case against Mr. Rex.

The top court, says Mr. Handa, will have to address this "delicate balance" between the country's cultural protections and its citizens' freedom of expression.


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