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Cracking the code

TrueVisions' recent introduction of 17 new HD channels comes as good news, its upgrade to a secure encryption system less so



The recent addition by 17 high-definition channels by leading cable satellite television operator TrueVisions is a very good reason for anyone who hasn't already invested in a new HD TV to go ahead and buy one.

The 17 HD channels, which have been integrated with TrueVisions' premium Platinum package, are broadcast in 1080i resolution and were launched on July 16 as part of the operator's upgrade of its broadcast system.

Earlier, TrueVisions did not have enough satellite transponders to accommodate so many HD channels because it broadcast in MPEG2 video format.

As part of the system upgrade, TrueVisions is now broadcasting its higher packages - Silver, Gold and Platinum - in MPEG4 video format. This uses less bandwidth, thus allowing TrueVisions to have enough bandwidth on ThaiCom 5 satellite to accommodate 17 HD channels, making it the subscription TV operation with highest number of HD channels.

The HD channels cover all types of programmes ranging from movies, entertainment, sports, documentaries, to K-pop varieties. They are: History HD, Sundance HD, ESPN HD, KBS World HD, HD Showcase, Reality HD, HBO HD, TrueSport HD, TrueSport HD 2, National Geographic HD, Discovery HD World, Fox Movies Premium HD, Fox Family Movies HD, AXN HD, KMTV HD, iConcerts HD and TNN HD.

As part of the system upgrade, TrueVisions turned to use Samsung HD Plus receivers and has been changing its customers' receivers since October.

I've been watching the 17 HD channels on my Samsung 51-inch Plasma E530A3R TV and the pictures are very sharp, bright and colourful. The channels are also broadcast in 19:1 aspect ratio so the pictures do not look distorted on LCD or Plasma TVs.

Tuning into sports, I could clearly see the sweat on the players. When the pictures turned to the spectators in the stands, their heads did not look blurred.

Documentary fans will have trouble tearing themselves away from National Geographic HD, History HD and Discovery HD. Shot in high detail, the pictures were amazingly sharp. I watched a documentary about life on the North Pole life on National Geographic HD and could see the sharp details of the penguins as if they were just inches away from me.

HBO HD, Fox Movies and Fox Movies Premium HD are also fun to watch and I also enjoyed the sports on ESPN HD, TrueSport HD and TrueSport HD 2.

I love watching concerts so I really enjoyed the iConcerts HD channel. If you're addicted to series, you can get up close to your favourite characters on AXN HD.

TrueVisions is broadcasting the Olympics games on four HD channels - TrueSport HD (ESPN 1), TrueSport HD2 (ESPN 2), KBS World HD (ESPN 3), HD Showcase (ESPN 4) and five SD channels - TrueSport 5 (ESPN 5), TrueSport 6 (ESPN 6), Special Sport (ESPN 7), ESPN and Star Sports, which gives viewers plenty of options.

And since TrueVisions changed the video encoding from MPEG2 to MPEG4, the signal details of its SD channels also appears to have increased. The result is that certain SD channels look sharper, among them Diva and TVN.

TrueVisions also took the opportunity of the upgrade to change its content encryption technology from Irdeto 2 to NDS' VideoGuard digital encryption system. Subscription cards are paired to receivers, so subscription keys cannot be shared by non-subscribers. According to Wikipedia, the latest VideoGuard system hasn't been cracked via any reverse engineering method since early 2009.

The use of the VideoGuard system has been dubbed by the Dreambox community - Thailand's pirate viewing community - as "The Empire Strikes Back".

So far, TrueVisions is continuing to use Irdeto 2 technology for its entry-level Knowledge package but the new safeguards are preventing Dreambox users from being able to watch premium programs, like HD sports, HBO, Fox Movies or AXN.

Dreambox is the name of Linux-based satellite receivers, which have a LAN port or, in some cases, a wireless LAN function. They can connect to Internet to fetch decoding keys to decrypt content of TV channels from certain servers. But VideoGuard cripples this technique, leaving most of Dreambox users' screens blank.

The pirate community has grown so big that many satellite receivers, which are not Dreambox but have been designed with the same Internet key-fetching function, have flooded the Thai market. These Chinese-made receivers come into the country mainly by boat on the Mekong to Chiang Rai or other northern provinces and are sold via web boards.

Operators of the viewing-keys servers are devastated by the VideoGuard launch. Each content key server operator is said to have at least 100 customers and each customer was being charged about Bt100 to Bt250 a month for the content decoding service.

With Dreambox users no longer able to watch TrueVisions' premium programmes, these server operators have lost or will soon lose most, if not all, their customers.

The Dreambox users have surrendered to the "Emperor" but apparently with a condition. They are all determined to take advantage of current Platinum package promotion under which if a household subscribes for four viewing spots of Platinum package by the end of this month, the service charge will be Bt2,812 per month or about Bt703 per each viewing spot.

Of course, the promotion is aimed at large families with multiple TV sets but Dreambox users have been organising four-member groups to sign up for this promotion since July 16. They have been posting messages on their community board, saying which groups still wants members to join to subscribe the packages. It has become so popular that TrueVisions' call centre was flooded with calls and by July 19, TrueVisions was urging interested customers to use its online service to sign up for the package.

And to accommodate new customers defecting from the Dreambox community, TrueVisions is also announcing new, more affordable packages, among them the Super Sports Pack for English Premier League fans at Bt650 a month.

But not all Dreambox rebels will surrender to the Emperor. Many have decided to flee to other satellites - especially Measat 3 and Vinasat 1, which broadcast Malaysia's Astro Subscription TVs and Vietnam's K Plus and VTC subscription TVs respectively. These rebels will continue to use the Internet-based content decoding services from the operators of the servers.

Satellite disc technicians are currently overwhelmed with requests for installations of discs to receive beams from Measat 3 and Vinasat 1.

And many of them still post messages on the Dreambox community board that they continue to keep their fingers crossed that VideoGuard will be cracked one day.


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