Streaming devices allow fans to watch all World Cup matches free of charge

Sales of devices that enable sports fans to watch all World Cup matches free of charge are booming, but users may be offside with the law, writes Vanessa Yung

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 June, 2014, 12:04pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 June, 2014, 12:46pm

Soccer fan Adonis To Wing-tai has been having a ball following live World Cup matches from Brazil. Because he is not a pay-television subscriber, To has in past years joined friends at sports bars, or stayed with others who had cable to watch.

But To hasn't had to worry about disrupting the routines of his friends since May, when he began following the English Premier League.

Instead of signing-up for a sports package from Now TV, he brought home a tiny black device that he has grown to love over the past few months - a Xiaomi streaming media box. It has enabled him to view all the matches for the 2014 World Cup.

"It's convenient, and gives me a lot more options for watching soccer and other entertainment from around the globe," says To of the Android-based device, which has become an essential item in many Hong Kong households.

Not to be confused with a digital TV receiver, various streaming media devices have emerged in recent years that allow consumers to watch the explosion of internet video content more easily on their television sets.

At least 20 brands are available on the market, says Jacky Cheung Yiu-shing, founding president of the Chamber of Hong Kong Computer Industry. Most are mainland products and sell for between HK$200 and HK$1,500, with Xiaomi, HiMedia and MyGica being the most popular.

The cheaper devices tend to be sold by hawkers on pop-up stands, but consumers can also buy online via shopping sites such as Taobao or from authorised distributors.

Although World Cup fever has driven up sales of such devices by between 20 per cent and 30 per cent, Cheung says, streaming media devices have been around for some time.

"Similar products using the Linux operating system started appearing on the market at least five years ago. But set-top boxes have become popular lately because streaming technology is maturing. The boxes are getting cheaper and the quality is improving. The Android operating system also makes them more user-friendly."

To, who runs an electronics store in Kwun Tong, has benefited from heightened interest because of the World Cup - his sales have gone up by 30 per cent since April. Streaming devices have increased his own viewing options, he says.

"I watched the British Premier League by downloading the Togic app, which streams material from Guangdong sports channels. There are other apps which feature overseas and mainland channels. Many of them broadcast World Cup matches live, and that's how I watch the tournament."

Widespread access to high-speed broadband and streaming devices may disrupt the entertainment business, but for now attention is focused on how content is distributed.

"The Xiaomi set-top box was launched after [the company] struck up a partnership with iCN TV network to offer a wide choice of licensed television dramas, shows and movies," says Kelvin Ip Ka-chun, product manager at Alris Technology, an authorised Xiaomi distributor.

"According to information we received from the producer, there will not be any live World Cup coverage through the Xiaomi box. It's a different matter if users decide to 'jailbreak' their device," he says.

"Jailbreaking" - which generally refers to hacking a device to bypass restrictions on digital rights - enables users such as To to access an enormous pool of channels worldwide and watch their content for free using third-party video-streaming apps.

But a consumer who jailbreaks a Xiaomi streaming media box will not be covered by its usual warranty, Ip warns.

The legality of using streaming devices has To completely befuddled. "It's just like using your mobile phone to watch Korean dramas with apps such as Tudou and Youku," he says. "If we're fine doing that on our mobile phones, why can't we do it if it's connected to the television?"

Any device which obtains its signal through the internet, including Apple TV and Android-based streaming media boxes, is not required to obtain a licence from the Office of the Communications Authority so is not under its supervision.

The Customs and Excise Department says it cannot give a blanket verdict on whether it is an offence to use streaming media devices, because the various models use different operating systems.

But officials note that under the Copyright Ordinance, any person who distributes a work without license from the owner is committing an offence, and the maximum penalty is a fine of HK$500,000 and four years' imprisonment.

On Wednesday, Customs officers arrested nine people suspected to be part of a syndicate that illegally transmitted World Cup broadcasts through set-top boxes. Senior Superintendent Lee Hon-wah said it was the first time the department has enforced the ordinance in relation to content pirated over set top boxes. The syndicate is believed to have uploaded the content from pay-TV channels to servers outside Hong Kong. Consumers who bought certain set-top boxes were then able to watch programmes for free by linking up to the servers via the internet.

Anthony Tong Tat-hay, a lawyer and deputy chairman of the Copyright Tribunal, says because Hong Kong law doesn't deal with end-user liability, home users are seldom targeted as they are not involved in commercial exploitation.

But they may still face civil proceedings if the copyright owner decides to take action.

Parties who jailbreak the streaming device face higher risk of prosecution as secondary infringers, although Tong says he does not know of any action taken by a copyright owner.

"Any prosecution would require a 'victim' to press charges. There may also be a lot of claims over copyrighted material that needs clarifying," he says. "Maybe the rights owners are too busy dealing with the World Cup fever, or they have secured sufficient income."

Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB), which secured the exclusive broadcasting rights in Hong Kong for the World Cup across all media platforms, including television, internet and mobile, is aware of the use of streaming media devices to watch matches.

"Any unauthorised broadcasting of the World Cup through the internet or other means is illegal," says Winnie Ho, assistant controller in TVB's corporate and community relations department.

"We have reported the problem of online piracy to Fifa. They will take measures to tackle this problem, including removing the source of unauthorised streams."

TVB provides live broadcast of 22 matches, including the opening and final matches, on its five free-to-air channels - Jade, Pearl, J2, iNews and HD Jade - and through its myWorldCup App on mobile phones.

But those who want live access to all 64 matches in the tournament have to subscribe to its pay-TV platform, TVB Network Vision.

Subscriptions for TVB Network Vision have been in line with expectations, Ho says.

But the plethora of shops selling different streaming media boxes, often flagging World Cup matches as the selling point, is evidence of the great demand.

The legislator representing the IT sector, Charles Mok Nai-kwong, notes that while using set-top boxes without jailbreaking or hiding the IP address is not a problem, most content such as live World Cup coverage is protected. So streaming matches over the internet through an OTT (over-the-top) platform would breach the copyright.

"Hongkongers are apt to use the latest technology to obtain entertainment in the most cost-effective way, but intercepting signals and bypassing pay-TV stations can amount to copyright infringement and I do not support this," Mok says.

"OTT boxes, like their predecessors in on-demand TV, will gradually break down the territorial barriers imposed by the broadcasters or the copyright holders.

"In the long run, the entire media and entertainment landscape, including the television and film industries, will have to innovate and evolve to cope with changes in viewers' expectations," he says.

"This is already happening on the mainland and I can see that HKTV's attempt has already prompted local broadcasters to move towards OTT."

Meanwhile, soccer fan Wong Shiu-lung has been delighted with the HiMedia streaming device that he bought on mainland shopping site Taobao. Because it comes with the licensed Mango TV app, he has been able to watch World Cup matches on CCTV-5 and many other channels without having to install a third-party app.

He has already used it to watch the tournament several times, including the Brazil versus Croatia opener as well as Argentina's match against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

"I didn't even bother to check if matches were being broadcast for free because I was sure I could see them all via my set-top box. But there's a drawback - I have to put up with commentary in Putonghua," he says.

Ivan Ho Wang-hei, an assistant professor at Polytechnic University's department of electronic and information engineering, points out that the quality of the live feed is often unreliable when using streaming devices, or other detour methods such as faking your IP address, to access mainland websites.

"It depends on which network provider you use. Moreover, most of these media streaming boxes use peer-to-peer technology; this means viewers double as dispenser of the video they are watching because it lowers operating costs considerably compared to maintaining a reliable server from which all viewers extract videos," says Ho.

"It implies that the quality of the service is highly reliant on each user's condition. The resolution and stability is not guaranteed. That's why it's wise to view the World Cup using proper means - unless you find lagging or blurry footage amusing."

Wong has experienced few glitches so far, and reports generally smooth viewing. His strategy is to watch only the morning matches, when there are fewer people sharing the network.