What is a Digital TV Descrambler?

John Lister

A digital TV descrambler is a device, usually built into a set top box, that decodes encrypted channels and allows customers to watch subscription-based channels or pay-per-view events. Usually, the television service supplier will give subscribers a smartcard that allows the descrambler to work for the duration of their subscription. Some independent traders offer unofficial descramblers designed to allow viewers to watch subscription channels without paying, though this is both illegal and unreliable.

A digital TV descrambler is often built into a set-top box.
A digital TV descrambler is often built into a set-top box.

Descramblers can be used in both satellite and cable systems. In some countries, they are also used with digital terrestrial broadcasting: that is, digital channels broadcast over the air and received with a standard TV aerial. While some countries have all digital terrestrial broadcasts available without charge, other countries have systems where some premium channels are scrambled as with cable or satellite.

A display that can work with a digital TV.
A display that can work with a digital TV.

Consumers should not confuse a descrambler with a cable converter box. The latter device allows someone to watch the cable channel of his or her choice on a single channel on a TV. This can be done through a standard channel, such as the VHF channels on an American TV, or through the “auxiliary” or “external” channels assigned to RSA jacks or HD inputs. The confusion arises as most cable companies will build the descrambler directly into the converter box.

A digital TV descrambler can decode encrypted signals from communications satellites.
A digital TV descrambler can decode encrypted signals from communications satellites.

The name “digital TV descrambler” is also commonly used by people selling unofficial devices. These are billed as offering the chance to get access to scrambled channels, including those broadcasting pay-per-view events, without paying a subscription fee. Putting aside the fact that this is breaking the law, such offers are often not what they are cracked up to be. Digital channels are encrypted in a much more complicated manner today than in the analog TV era, lessening the chances that such devices will actually work. Even where a device does descramble channels when first used, there is absolutely no guarantee that it will continue to work permanently.

Digital TV signals are either UHF, or Ultra High Frequency, or VHF, or Very High Frequency, and they generally reach up to 70 miles away from their broadcast towers.
Digital TV signals are either UHF, or Ultra High Frequency, or VHF, or Very High Frequency, and they generally reach up to 70 miles away from their broadcast towers.

The legal situation over owning an unofficial descrambler has been a gray area. There is little, if any, dispute that possessing such a device is a criminal offense and that law authorities could prosecute owners. It is not clear whether TV service suppliers, such as cable firms, can take civil action over owners, however. A ruling in one case appeared to suggest that companies could only bring lawsuits where they had managed to obtain evidence that the owner had actually used the device.

How Do Illegal Descramblers Work for Pay-Per-View Events?

Sometimes an existing cable customer doesn’t want to pay extra for additional broadcasts, such as sporting events or new movies. An illegal descrambler can provide this programming for free. The box allows the customer to receive the programming signal from the cable company, but it prevents the return transmission of the box’s location to avoid being billed by the company.

However, cable companies have caught onto this practice and began sending random signals to set-top boxes. The company may deactivate the cable box if the device doesn’t respond because a descrambler is blocking the return signal. This also alerts the company that a descrambler may be in use. Unfortunately, if a person uses this device to access pay-per-view programming, the descrambler stores all the shows they could have watched when it was active. This means that the customer could be liable to pay for all the pay-per-view programs stored on the box, regardless of whether they actually watched them or not.

How Does a Cable Company Know Someone Has a Descrambler?

If a person chooses to use an illegal descrambler, the cable company must prove that a person used the device to steal programming. A cable company may recognize that someone has a box in a few different ways.

  • Technology is available to the cable company to detect which homes have cable boxes. The company can investigate if a home doesn’t have a paid subscription, but a device is detected.
  • A technician performing service may notice an illegal descrambler.
  • If a seller of descramblers gets investigated, they may provide investigators with a customer’s name. 
  • Cable companies can send a specific broadcast, such as an enticing commercial, that only people using an illegal descrambler can see. When customers try to claim their free prize or call about a free viewing event, the cable company automatically knows that the customer uses a descrambler. 

While it may seem like no one could know if an illegal descrambler is in use, there are ways that people may not even be aware of, and they should consider the fact that they could be caught and prosecuted for using it.

What Can Cable Companies Do If Someone Uses a Descrambler?

A cable company has the right to sue an individual if they use an illegal descrambler. However, the way the case proceeds depend on the evidence against the individual. If a company has proof that someone has used a pirated box to watch programming that they only sell by subscription, they can pursue civil litigation. In order to do this, the cable company must be able to show how long the box has been used and be able to calculate how much money that customer didn’t pay the company.

Someone who owns a descrambler that they purchased from an independent retailer isn’t necessarily breaking the law enough to be prosecuted. A person must use the box to watch programming without paying for it. So, simply having technology that shows a descrambler in a home, a technician seeing a box, or being on a seller’s list may not be enough to sue a person.

How Much Can a Cable Company Sue For?

When a cable company has proof that a customer used a descrambler to steal programming, they may choose to file a lawsuit. According to U.S. federal law, the cable company can sue for an approximate amount of lost revenue that a customer would have paid if they were using the box legally and paying for their subscription. All the cable company needs to prove is how much a customer could have watched during the time they had a connected pirated box and doesn’t need to ascertain precisely how many hours they actually watched. Cable companies can also ask for damages to cover the cost of a lawyer, court fees and up to $10,000 in additional damages.

Are People Who Sell Descramblers Legally Liable?

It can be challenging to prove the intent of those who sell descramblers. Since customers can use these devices to watch cable programming legally, many sellers don’t have control over how a person uses this device. Even if sellers market the item as providing free cable programming, they can state that they only sell it for legal use. Many state laws only say it’s illegal to watch stollen cable, which leaves the sellers free to make money off those who are willing to take the risk of being caught.

Descramblers can be used in both satellite and cable systems.
Descramblers can be used in both satellite and cable systems.

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Discussion Comments

anon325407

I am from a country that is going from analog to digital. It's a third world country that has 70 percent of its TV watchers who can't afford dingy boxes or sign on with a provider. Local TV station owners are complaining.

I know a well known software company in Tanzania and am trying use this opportunity to find a way to provide legit service to TV stations and to the public. Anyone interested in this project who can configure a TV station so the viewers can receive signal by antenna? There is lots of potential.

Azuza

@KaBoom - I had a few friends back in college that used a digital descrambler to get free satellite TV and they truly didn't think what they were doing was wrong. They thought stealing cable was their way of "sticking it to the man" or something like that.

I'm not a fan of dishonesty but I can understand why some people do this. I guess they figure it's not really hurting anyone, but I still find it ethically objectionable.

KaBoom

@Domido - It's amazing how many people steal digital cable who would never steal a physical item. I think some people think if they didn't walk into a store and take something they aren't stealing. I'm with you though, I would be shocked and appalled if I caught my parents stealing digital cable!

JessiC

Are digital television descramblers more cost effective than satellite or cable?

I’ve got to say that I am a stay at home mom and so we have some pretty tight finances most of the time. I just cannot bring myself to pay such outlandish prices to sit and watch television!

I would love to have the extra channels, but I am too frugal for it, I guess. Really, fifty or sixty (or more) bucks go a long way toward our grocery bill!

But, if I could find something that didn’t cost quite that much each month, it really would be nice to join everyone else in this century. Maybe then my sixteen year old nephew wouldn’t look at me and roll his eyes when he remembers that we don’t have cable tv.

Domido

I was absolutely shocked to find out that my parents were using an illegal digital cable TV descrambler! These are people that made me take back the chewing gum I lifted when I was four (which cost two cents at the time).

Not only did I have to take it back to the store, I also had to apologize and promise to never take anything again. I then paid for the returned merchandise out of my own money and couldn’t even have it.

But these two were not finished yet. They then carted me off to the police station (we lived in a small town) and made me tell our Chief of Police what I had done, too. Needless to say, I’ve never even stolen so much as a gum wrapper since then!

Hence my complete and utter shock at their behavior! I was simply amazed and flabbergasted that my saintly parents would do such a thing as steal cable!

It wasn’t long though, and these two criminals got what they deserved. Their television was struck by lightning. I had to laugh at this turn of events and knew precisely where it was headed!

My mother declared that that was what they got for stealing cable, and immediately threw out the contraband descrambler.

I was so relieved to see that thing go and see my parents go back to their usual, upstanding selves.

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