Chinese TV boxes like Xiaomi offering Hongkongers online alternative to local channels
The failure of tycoon Ricky Wong Wai-kay to get his internet and mobile television station up and running is not stopping Hongkongers from going online to find alternatives to the city's much-maligned broadcasters.
A set-top box made by mainland technology giant Xiaomi is selling fast, despite the fact programmes from Wong's Hong Kong Television Network will not be available any time soon.
Launched in the city in May last year, sales took off with help from the immense popularity of the Korean drama My Love From the Star and mainland music show I am a Singer, both available online before they featured on local television.
The box works on the Android operating system also used on smartphones. Users plug the box into their television, connect to the internet and select the app for iCNTV, which offers content from mainland video websites.
And other - unofficial - options can give users access to a range of content that might cost them hundreds of dollars per month from pay-TV operators.
Alris Technology, the authorised seller of the box in Hong Kong, is getting through 10,000 of the HK$599 boxes per month and will not have any more stock until the end of this month, according to Kelvin Ip Ka-chun, product manager for the box.
"It's similar to watching videos on streaming websites using a computer. But with a Xiaomi box, you can control everything on a remote," Ip explained.
Copyright issues prevent Hong Kong viewers from watching some content - My Love from the Star, for example, is no longer officially available - and Ip says: "Local dramas can't be shown, as well as some movies."
But that isn't the end of the story. Users can have boxes "jail-broken" - meaning certain security restrictions are removed. That allows them to install unapproved and unofficial apps that allow them to view a host of content, such as English Premier League football.
And Anthony Tong Tat-hay, a lawyer and deputy chairman of the Copyright Tribunal, said the only individual likely to risk prosecution was the person unlocking the device.
The providers of the illegal programmes were unlikely to be in Hong Kong, he said. "For home users, they are usually not the targets as it does not involve commercial exploitation" of copyrighted material, Tong said.
Xiaomi would also likely avoid legal liability because it would be hard for any litigant to prove that the devices existed only for the purpose of being "jail-broken".
Still, Xiaomi has faced legal troubles. Late last year, it was reportedly issued with a writ on the mainland by website Youku Tudou for providing its users with dramas to which the website has exclusive rights.
Youku had demanded US$830,000 in damages from Xiaomi and the immediate removal of 10 television shows from its channels, on the grounds that it owned the rights to distribute the programmes on mainland China, Forbes reported.
Youku also wanted Xiaomi to publicly apologise. The status of the legal action is not known.