degrees of legality: cable in Beirut
Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 1, 2007
Last night I talked with the newly Asian G, who described his inaugural meal in his new city as “so hot it made Nando’s peri-peri sauce taste mild”.
So Diamond, how was your day? G asked. Anything exciting happen?
As it turns out, I replied, yes. I have a new name. I am now Muhammad Badr al-Mxxxxx.
WHAT? G asked, stealing one of my favorite lines.
Well, I explained, that’s what the cable company calls me.
Cable in Lebanon is a funny thing. In the first place, it isn’t cable – its satellite. Of course, there is a cable that connects each television with a satellite feed, but not an underground cable network as with “cable” in the US.
In the second place, it isn’t legal – at least, most of it isn’t. The vast majority of people in Lebanon use black-market cable – just as they do internet. (My internet is legal – I bank and pay bills online, which makes the idea of sharing an IP with hundreds of my “neighbors less appealing!) Black-market cable is much cheaper: $10-15 per month, versus $60-120 for various legal cable packages.
As a result, watching television comes with a few quirks: no channel guides, and no channel consistency! Not only do I have different channels than my friends, but the same channels appear on different numbers on my television. And at my gym, the two TVs I watch – hung next to one another on the same wall – have different numbers for the same channels.
Its strange, but rather endearing – and makes for good conversation. Several of my friends watch CNN International, and have reported that their CNN has now changed to al-Jazeera English. Mine, on the other hand, has stayed CNN. And thanks to a “visit” from one of the pay-channel distributors, G’s television no longer gets some of the Orbitz channels. No big loss, really, but Fashion TV disappeared as well – to be replaced by the decidedly less enticing (read: no women in skimpy outfits) Fashion TV Men. I tried to sympathize, but my smirk gave me away :).
But black-market cable isn’t really illegal, either – in fact, its more like grey-market cable. The reason why I know that “my” name is now Muhammad is that when I pay my bill at the beginning of each month, the man who comes to collect gives me a receipt.
And its not just just a scribble on a piece of paper, either. My receipt comes with a company name, an agent name and a mobile number. It identifies me by building and apartment number (the equivalent of a billing address), as well as by name, and it details the amount I pay and the date.
Its not legal, but it is extremely professional – and I count myself a very satisfied customer.