While many are eager for the chance to watch some top class football without installing a satellite dish, not everyone wants to have a dedicated receiver sitting under their TV just for a couple of extra channels. Especially when almost all digital TV sets, and many other set top boxes and recorders, include a CI slot.
The CI slot is a standard interface into which a PC-card module can be plugged to provide encryption services. A smart card (or ‘viewing card’) slots into the module (called a CAM, or Conditional Access Module), and the whole combination unlocks the paid content.
So, in theory, if you have a TV with a CI slot, or a similarly equipped Freeview recorder, all you’d need is an appropriate CAM, together with a viewing card from TopUpTV, and you’d be able to watch Sky Sports 1 and 2 using your existing equipment.
Last week, an Ofcom decision was reported, in terms which suggested Ofcom was refusing to allow a ‘blocking’ or ‘spoiler’ move by Sky against TopUpTV. Many have assumed that this has given a green light to the use of CAMs to receive the Sky channels on equipment of users’ choice, just as they can be used to receive the ESPN sports channel at present.
In fact, the ruling was on a different matter entirely. Sky’s contention was that, by forcing them to allow other companies to sell Sky Sports 1 and 2, Ofcom had not intended those to be the sole thing sold, but that they should be add-ons to other services. In other words, that TopUpTV – whose main service is provided by overnight downloads to a dedicated recorder – should only sell the sports channels as an adjunct to that service. TopUpTV wanted to sell boxes that had no hard drive, and so couldn’t access the overnight service, and would thus be primarily used only to receive Sky Sports. Sky objected, Ofcom overruled them, and on the 16th of August, i-Can unveiled the ‘TopUpTV-ready’ version of their EasyHD set top box. It provides FreeviewHD, iPlayer, and if you put a TopUpTV viewing card into the slot on the front, you can have Sky Sports 1 and 2 as well. It’s being sold for about £125, and more stockists will be announced soon; if you already have an EasyHD, you’ll need a firmware update to enable the card slot. I reviewed the box for RegisterHardware a few months ago.
So what about CAMs?
If the Ofcom ruling wasn’t about CAMs, what’s the current situation? According to TopUpTV, the only officially supported boxes at the moment are those with embedded encryption. That means that TV sets, or third party set top boxes and PVRs with CI slots aren’t supported. They may work at the moment – several people on sites like Digital Spy have reported success – but there is no guarantee that they will continue to do so in future.
Obviously, TopUpTV would like as many subscribers as possible, and so would prefer to be able to allow anyone with a CAM to subscribe. However, the design of the CI/CAM system is pretty old now, and there are some security concerns, alongside issues to do with the way CAMs fit into the user interface of different bits of equipment.
One way of addressing that is via a system called CI+ (or CIplus), which offers several improvements over the existing system, and is already found in some equipment, including the Humax HDR-Fox T2 FreeviewHD recorder. It’s reportedly included in some TVs from major manufacturers as well.
TopUpTV tells me that talks with Sky are ongoing; the most likely outcome is probably a compromise that will see CI+ modules being made available. In the long term, though standard CAMs may work today, it’s not guaranteed that will remain the case.
With no minimum contract for Sky Sports via TopUpTV, if you already have a CAM (for example, for ESPN) it may be worth taking a punt on trying the service. If you’re buying new equipment and hope to use one, then your best bet is to make sure that your new TV or PVR also supports CI+, in case a compatible module is released later.
The important thing to remember, though, is that all that’s guaranteed to work for Sky Sports is receivers with embedded encryption, and that’s all that TopUpTV is selling at the moment – though they will sell you a CAM for £19.99 if you just want ESPN.
Anything other than a box with embedded encryption is at your own risk, and may stop working, leaving you out of pocket for the cost of a CAM and a month’s subscription.
Update: I’ve just had confirmation back from TopUpTV, for those who are using a CAM at present: “These will stop working with Sky Sports later in 2010 when new security measures are introduced.”