Irdeto smartcard in front of a Humax satellite decoder

Understanding Satellite TV Encryption


E-16 Service is Currently Scrambled. That annoying message that is displayed on your TV screen when you boot your decoder, say, on a Friday evening when you arrive home ready to catch that movie or series you had planned for. Too bad; your subscription has expired and now you have to make arrangements to renew it, meaning you’ll probably have to settle for listening to radio or sleep for the night having missed out on your favourite programmes. But how exactly does this come about?

At the broadcast center, the high-quality digital stream of video goes through an MPEG encoder, which converts the programming to MPEG-4 video of the correct size and format for the satellite receiver in your house. Encoding works in conjunction with compression to analyze each video frame and eliminate redundant or irrelevant data and extrapolate information from other frames. This process reduces the overall size of the video file. After the video is compressed, the provider encrypts it to prevent people from accessing it for free. Once the signal is compressed and encrypted, the broadcast centre beams it directly to one of its satellites. The satellite picks up the signal with an on-board dish, amplifies the signal and uses another dish to beam the signal back to Earth, where viewers can pick it up via the satellite dishes installed in their houses & watch the channels using a designated decoder.

Encryption therefore scrambles the digital video in such a way that it can only be decrypted or decoded (converted back into view-able format) if the receiver has the correct decryption algorithm and security keys. In laymans terms, a Decoder and a Smart card does all these for you in real time; decrypting the signals & security keys so that you can enjoy your crystal clear and HD channels smoothly. If you are a Pay-TV subscriber you’ve probably come across the term Decoder & Smart card not paired or Decoder & Smart card not married, especially if you are a new customer with new equipment. What this simply means is that your decoder and Smart card needs to be linked together by your Pay-TV service provider in order for them to assign your equipment with specific algorithm & security keys, which in turn they’ll use to activate or deactivate your account depending on your subscription status.

The concept here is pretty much similar to your Smartphone & SIM card. You can switch on your phone, play games, take photos and use the flashlight even without a SIM card inserted. However, in order to make calls, browse the internet (except for Wi-Fi), send messages & handle Mobile transactions, you’ll need a SIM card with loaded airtime. In the same vein, you can switch on your decoder, browse through the menu, view photos and watch movies via USB ports without a Smart card inserted and paired with the decoder. However, in order to view any channels (except for the Welcome/Introduction/Guest channel that is not usually encrypted), you need to have a Smart card inserted and ensure you have an active subscription. Note that this only applies to Pay-TV decoders only, i.e. those that need monthly subscription, e.g. DStv, Zuku & StarTimes in Kenya. Most Free-to-Air Satellite Receivers don’t necessarily need a Smartcard to operate, although some models come with a Smartcard slot for optional Pay-TV upgrade. Currently, only DStv & Startimes decoders come with a Smart card that can only be used with its paired decoder and not any other. Zuku decoders however don’t come with Smart cards; they have the decoding modules and keys embedded in the decoder itself, thus eliminating the need for a Smart card. A typical decoder and Smart card is shown in the picture featured image..

Some of the common modes of digital encryption technology currently being used by Satellite Pay-TV companies to operate conditional access platforms for their services are PowerVu, Irdeto, Nagravision, Viaccess & Wegener. So the next time you see an E-16 error displayed on your TV screen, it simply means your TV service provider has changed the algorithm & security keys of your Smart card and therefore the decoder is therefore unable to execute the decryption commands. This means you only have to renew your subscription then have your Smart card reset in order to continue enjoying your favourite channels!


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