MEXICO CITY The conversion from analog to digital TV is mired in confusion in Mexico — even though it’s still at least 13 years off.

A media firestorm has broken out over TV Azteca’s free-to-air digital terrestrial TV platform Hi-TV that critics claim breaks the law by offering unlicensed channels.

Hi-TV is similar to France’s TNT and the U.K.’s Freeview, which give viewers free-to-air access to all the regular webs plus their digital spinoff channels via a set-top box, which the viewer buys with a one-off payment.  

Both were created within a clear, government-mandated framework and were intended to help push the take up of digital TV.

However, similar laws in Mexico are unclear, to say the least.

Owned by Mexican billionaire Ricardo Salinas Pliego, TV Azteca quietly began selling the Hi-TV decoder boxes for 1,999 pesos (about $150) in February through Salinas’ Elektra chain of appliance stores.

The boxes allow viewers to watch all the regular terrestrial webs — Azteca’s channels 7 and 13, Televisa’s 2, 5 and 9 and the standard over-the-air channels in each market.

It gives poorer Mexicans a chance to get a clearer signal on the channels they already have and a few extra channels without forking out a subscription fee that puts pay TV out of many people’s reach.

The rub is that Azteca is offering at least 10 extra channels on the same signal and plans to add features like video on demand.

The question is: Is this legal?

Azteca, Mexico’s No. 2 broadcaster behind Televisa, is defending Hi-TV as regulators begin to zero in on the issue.

The government began an inquiry into the platform following a May 11 article in major Mexican daily Reforma, which reported that Azteca TV was violating a number of laws, including the monolithic Law of Radio and Television passed in 2006.

That law outlined what frequencies Azteca and Televisa are allowed to transmit free-to-air. The main question is whether Azteca’s more efficient use of frequencies — transmitting more than one channel per frequency digitally — is legal or whether each channel must be separately approved for transmission by the government.

Critics, including congressmen from across the political spectrum, also accuse Azteca of breaking another law that provides guidelines to the analog-to-digital conversion, due to be completed in 2022. They claim that law says broadcaster may only transmit the same channels free-to-air as with analog — and no more.

Azteca believes this is a misinterpretation. Both laws contain vague and possibly contradictory language, and both sides are convinced of their own arguments.

On May 14, Azteca upped the stakes by issuing a release mocking Reforma for carrying out what it said was a smear campaign aimed to incite government regulatory sanctions and protect a monopolistic cabal led by conglom Televisa, its feevee units and the national cablers body Canitec.

“Today, all of Mexico is under the boot of this monopoly,” reads the release. “Televisa, Sky and Cablevision, along with partners like Cablemas … and other companies that form Canitec have done everything possible to impede the breaking of the pay TV monopoly and impede bringing lower prices to the consumer.”

Televisa has yet to comment and the cablers have said the matter is up to the authorities.

Later that day, national telco regulatory body Cofetel found that Hi-TV was operating illegally and referred the matter to the Transportation and Communication Secretariat.

But with tribunals and appeals it could be many months before Azteca is either punished or let off the hook. Salinas Pliego says his conglom is ready to appear at any trial and would appeal to international courts if necessary.

Elektra stores, meanwhile, are still offering the boxes.