The Edmonton Sun
Monday, June 23, 1997

DTH industry is lost in space

by Michael Jenkinson

For the uninitiated, Canada's direct-to-home (DTH) satellite broadcasting scene is like attending an Italian opera or watching Australian rules football for the first time. You can't tell the players without a program.

I suspect, however, that there is less carnage in operas or Aussie football than there has been on the satellite television front of late.

I follow the DTH satellite industry fairly closely and even I get confused at times. Home Star, Star Choice, Choice Star, DeathStar, LoneStar, and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star ... it all becomes a star-crossed blur.

Even the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which appears to be handing out DTH licences in Cracker Jack boxes, cannot keep them straight. They confirmed for me the five companies which have licences, but could not tell me which ones are actually beaming signals to the little pizza-sized rooftop dishes and which are using their licences to wallpaper their corporate offices.

So, to coin a phrase, let's dish. Canada has licensed five direct-to-home satellite companies, but only two are operating - AlphaStar and Star Choice.

And AlphaStar's future is in serious jeopardy because its parent company, Tee-Com Electronics, just went bankrupt. Three others, Power DirecTv, ExpressVu, and Home Star, have licences but are not beaming signals.

Big choice - one delivering, one dead, three dormant.

And don't be caught thinking that by subscribing to a Canadian DTH service, you will be escaping the awful channel choices forced on you by your cable company. Canada's DTH companies can only provide the same 35 or 40 channels you get from cable.

Sure, a Canadian DTH provider can give you to 30 channels of "premium digital audio" services. But I suspect that may just be a fancy name for the same basic service you get from that other high-tech gadget, the "radio".

If you want to escape the government's 30-year-old policy being forced to pay for television channels you don't want (come on down Women's Network!) and not being able to get the channels you really do want, you will have to enter the so-called "grey market". Just head down to your local home electronics store and buy a DirecTv or EchoStar dish, sign up for an American post-office box and head home to enjoy hundreds of channels. It's called a "grey market" because most of the channels are not authorized to be shown in Canada. You know, racy, controversial, hard-core stuff like EPSN and Disney.

The government has claimed that DirecTv and other American DTH services are illegal. Former Industry Minister John Manley has gone so far as to call those who sell DirecTv services in Canada "drug pushers".

If only drug pushers were this successful. Satellite industry insiders estimate some 300,000 Canadians have permanently disconnected their cable in favor of American grey-market services.

Now the Canadian DTH industry has been dealt a blow by a Saskatchewan judge who ruled last month that it is legal for Canadians to buy an American DTH dish and order the programming using an American address. He said it is not illegal to buy programming not legally available in Canada.

I'll let the lawyers and copy editors sort out the double negatives. In the meantime, the government is preparing its appeal. I am sure one day the argument will end up at the Supreme Court.

But even if the highest court ultimately rules against the dish owners, what is Ottawa going to do? Would it order the RCMP to round up more than a quarter of a million Canadians and throw them in jail for watching television?

Now there would be a messy fight. It would make Aussie rules football look tame.

Copyright © 1997 by The Edmonton Sun. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.