MONTERREY, Mexico — The thousands of satellite antenna dish owners in Mexico are discovering they have no legal means of descrambling channels. The U.S. government and motion picture companies stand in the way.
"In Mexico, we're fried," said Rodrigo Hernandez, whose company, Antec, manufactures and sells satellite antennas. "We don't have any rights."
U.S. law prohibits the sale of the MA/Com VideoCipher II descrambler outside the United States because its coding system uses technology that is controlled by the U.S. military and is not exportable, according to Larry Nelson, MA/Com executive vice president. The VideoCipher II decoder has been chosen by most satellite channels that have signals that are or will be scrambled.
Viewers here scoff at the U.S. government for trying to restrict the sale of a product widely available on the American market.
"It's just a series of integrated circuits," said Justo Elorduy, whose popular "In Orbit" column on satellite viewing appears weekly in the Monterrey newspaper, El Norte.
To make matters worse for Mexican satellite antenna owners, American movie companies also are keeping a tight rein on their product.
"Programmers such as HBO, Cinemax and Showtime pay for the rights to the movies they show, but they have the rights to those signals to rebroadcast them to the continental United States only," said Jerry Fischette, vice president of operations for SPACE, the Satellite Television Industry Assn. based in Alexandria, Va.
"I don't believe they would refuse a paying customer if they had the rights," Fischette said by telephone.
Although some estimates go as high as 40,000, no exact count is available of the satellite antennas throughout the country.
An estimated 9,000 homes have satellite antennas in the metropolitan area of Monterrey, Mexico's third largest city just a three-hour drive from the Texas border.
The density of dishes in Monterrey's wealthy suburb of Garza Garcia, known locally as "the valley," prompted Satellite Orbit, the satellite viewers guide, to call it the "Valley of Dishes."
Yet, Fischette said one of the reasons the film producers have not dealt with countries such as Mexico is because the country is not yet a sizable market.
Viewers spent as much as $5,000 for satellite dishes when they first became available in the early 1980s because the daily lineup on local television stations is dominated by soap operas and dubbed reruns of U.S. TV shows.
Movie theaters, with rare exceptions, offer films at the same time they're available via satellite.
Hernandez said viewers also wanted more sports programs, scientific programs and a chance for the children to learn English.
"The people here are used to looking for more information. They want more news and culture," said Elorduy.
Mexican television, he said, "isn't an option."
People are being forced to watch helplessly as their expensive antennas are turned into "a mountain of garbage," Hernandez said.
The alternative for antenna owners is to risk buying descramblers from smugglers or bringing them illegally across the border themselves. Then, using an address in the United States, they can get the descramblers programmed.
However, they're totally unprotected, Hernandez said.
Elorduy said at least 15 people have complained of dealers in the United States who sold them descramblers along with a one-year subscription to HBO and Cinemax. After two months of viewing those channels, the signal was scrambled again.
"The dealers had paid just for two months and pocketed the rest of the money," Elorduy said.
Hernandez, a member of Monterrey's SPACE association of satellite dish manufacturers, sellers and installers, said the organization opposes selling the descramblers as contraband.
"Our association is trying, following the legal channels, to get the authorization to sell the descrambler and the programs in Mexico," he said. "So far we haven't found a solution to the problem."
Movie companies, Fischette said, "want to say how programming will be distributed. If it's distributed outside the states, they want to control the revenues for it."
The $395 price of the Video-Cipher II and the channel subscription rates are steep for many Mexicans, Hernandez acknowledged. However, he said many would be willing to pay for the improved programming.