T3 Opinion: Sky must be forced to be more open

We think Sky should allow you to use your own hardware to watch its channels

Here's a complaint I've had about Sky - and Virgin too - for many years: it is far too restrictive about how people access its services and should be forced to be more open.

So what do I mean? Well, imagine you fancy yourself a Sky subscription with access to all that good stuff like Game of Thrones and the football thing I'll never understand. All great so far, you call up for a subscription but are told that you have to use Sky's box.

In TV terms this is like the BBC telling us all that we can only watch BBC Two on Sony TVs while ITV demands we all have Panasonic screens. In fact it's slightly worse than that, because Sky doesn't offerSony or Panasonic, it offers its own brand of hardware which is formed from its acquisition of Amstrad a few years ago.

A total lack of customer choice

What's wrong with the Sky box I hear you ask? Well, there's nothing inherently wrong with it for most people. It is, however, a fairly uninspiring piece of plastic. It's not especially nice to look at, it's not super-fast and while its user interface is acceptable enough it doesn't suit anyone who wants even one degree of control over it.

Here's an example. You pay for your Sky subscription each month but you aren't allowed to delete or reorder channels. How on earth is that fair? How could that ever be considered a good user experience. Sky doesn't want you to change or remove channels, no matter how much you despise shopping channels. Sky doesn't want you to do this because along with enjoying your subscription revenue, Sky also enjoys money from channel broadcasters who want their channels to be seen by you, getting an EPG listing on Sky's platform costs millions

There isn't a single right-thinking human among us that wants those shopping channels, or the endless softcore porn drivel, or those atrocious gambling channels. The only people watching these channels are those waiting to see which presenter will go mad first, strip naked and then gut a chicken to use its blood as body paint and intestines as a hat. This may already have happened on Sky channel 876, but no one ever gets that far down the EPG.

And all this is made worse by the fact that there are some brilliant third-party receivers on the market. I reviewed a Technomate satellite box once, and the things you could do with it are staggering. Although, naturally Sky has problems with this, which is why it's not possible.

Third-party receivers

If you've ever used a satellite box with a Linux-based OS like a Dreambox or similar then you'll know that what is technically possible, and what Sky allows in its hardware are very different.

For example, a Dreambox allows you to save the encryption data for your recordings. That means that if something was encrypted when you saved it, you can play it back even once your subscription has lapsed. Sky doesn't allow that. You can also stream from a Dreambox to a computer, tablet or other device. This is also a brilliant feature, but Sky wants to sell you a multiroom subscription, so it won't allow that either.

Can you blame Sky?

I can already hear the cries of "but that's how Sky makes money". And yes, it's true, but I maintain that the way Sky treats its paying subscribers is fundamentally unfair. I don't begrudge them profit, but what I do think is wrong is holding back technology, selling crappy, inferior satellite boxes and preventing anyone from using the alternatives.

Can Europe sort this out?

Here's a piece of trivia for you. If you look at a TV sold in the last 20 years in the EU you'll find a socket on it. This socket takes a somewhat old-fashioned PC card, and into that card you can slot a subscriber card like Sky's. The EU mandated that this slot was placed on to every single TV that was digital-capable and sold in Europe.

That's right. The EU forced far larger companies than Sky to make their TVs support this socket. But why? What does it do? In short it allows any TV to accept a module which allows people to view subscription services. When we had OnDigital, ITV Digital or TopUp TV in the UK you could (in theory) get one of these and add the pay TV channels to your TV with no extra hardware.

The PC card is called a "conditional access module" and Sky could implement it, build one that supported its subscription cards and allow anyone with a satellite box or TV to view Sky channels. It would not lose money from this, people still need a valid subscription, but it would open the service to all sorts of hardware.

So yes, if Europe wanted to, or if Ofcom wasn't a toothless disaster of a watchdog, then Sky could be ordered to produce a CAM for its services.

What's the dream?

Here's all I want: the option to use non-Sky hardware to watch a Sky subscription. It's not a massive request, but it has massive implications for how we could watch Sky.

For example, you could have an adaptor for your Xbox One that would allow you to integrate Sky into its dashboard. Or you could build a media centre using Plex or XBMC and use that to record and playback your favourite programmes.

Of course, Sky would argue that the deals it does with content providers make this impossible. I would point out that if they're trying to prevent piracy then they are really terrible at it. Name a show or movie and I'll find it online as a torrent or some other download. Piracy can't be stopped, and it certainly can't be stopped by Sky's third-rate boxes being forced on consumers.

The more flexibility people are given to use what they pay for as they want, the more likely they are to want to pay.

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