Mexican cable biz preps piracy charges

Group also lobbying for signal theft to carry prison terms

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s cablers are preparing charges against more than 35 alleged pirates in a move to stem rampant bootlegging that’s choking the industry.

The suspects all run clandestine cable networks, delivering restricted-access television for free or cut rates and without license from cablers, according to the National Chamber of the Cable Television Industry (Canitec).

The industry group estimates that roughly 120 illegal networks are operating in Mexico. That, combined with widespread individual cable theft usually achieved through simple splices off lines from paying cable customers, has severely hampered cable penetration in Mexico. Penetration is well below 25% nationwide.

Mexico City, which has four satellite and cable platforms, has 500,000 paying subscribers, but that number would be 1 million if not for piracy, says Canitec president Alejandro Puente.

Rampant crime

Dense tangles of cable wire cover city rooftops, with second, third and fourth cables snaking off pirated lines, crudely connected by electrician’s tape. Some TV repairmen, if asked, will jack an illegal connection into existing wires. All told, Canitec estimates that piracy costs the industry $160 million a year. It is particularly endemic in Mexico City and the north of the country, including Monterrey, Mexico’s third-largest city. “In Mexico City, piracy is above 45%,” Puente said.

In addition to the criminal charges, which Canitec says it will soon file to Mexico’s Justice Dept., the industry group is lobbying Congress to classify signal theft as a federal felony that would carry prison terms of four to eight years. Currently, convicted cable pirates face only monetary fines.

Canitec is also publishing an antipiracy manual to be distributed among Mexico’s different restricted platforms and is promoting a unified industry effort to combat the problem.

Puente highlighted a program by Cablevision Mexico, the nation’s largest cabler and third-largest restricted platform, to change all subs to digital cable. A digital network is much more difficult to pirate.

The initiative is seen as a key to rescuing Cablevision, which between January 2001 and December 2003 lost 155,000 subs — nearly a third of its total base — a problem blamed largely on piracy.