Copyright 2003 Times Publishing Company

St. Petersburg Times (Florida)

May 19, 2003 Monday

When Bright House Networks comes knocking at the home where someone has tapped into its cable service, it's not to threaten arrest. It's to sign up a new customer.

CLEARWATER — Robert Butler slowly cruises the streets of a residential neighborhood. If he stops and knocks on a door, it's not to deliver good news. Butler is on the prowl for cable TV pirates.

But please don't refer to him as a cable cop. His title is "auditor" for Bright House Networks, a job that is more tedious than glamorous, more low tech than high tech.

Cable theft is big business. It's estimated that 10 percent of U.S. homes with cable access have illegal connections. Rich or poor, pirates can be found in all neighborhoods.

Bright House, the Tampa Bay area's dominant cable provider, says signal theft costs it about $27 million a year in lost revenue in seven west-central Florida counties.

Nationwide, the industry loses $6.6 billion annually, according to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. And that doesn't count lost franchise fee and sales tax revenues to various government entities.

"That's not fair to the neighbors" who do pay, Bright House spokeswoman Linda Chambers said.

Butler is one of Bright House Networks' eight auditors in Pinellas County and 34 in the bay area. As he makes his daily rounds, he checks underground boxes to make sure they have not been tampered with and cable boxes on the sides of noncustomers' houses to make sure they are not connected. He can hold up a signal meter that can detect a "leak," indicating someone has tampered with a cable box.

In a busy week, Butler may find up to 15 illegal connections. That's when he turns into a diplomat and salesman. He knocks on the doors and talks to the residents.

Butler tells them he noticed they weren't signed up for service and asks if they want to get it. Among the excuses Butler and his fellow auditors often hear:

"It was on when we moved in."

"My neighbor must have hooked it up."

"What cable?"

If the residents are not home, Butler leaves a door tag: "A recent audit of our cable lines indicated our service was not disconnected. Service will be disconnected in the next two days. To avoid service interruption, call . . . "

In a process that can stretch out to several weeks, the cable company makes other attempts to contact the residents, to warn about disconnecting the service and later to make sure it has not been reconnected.

If a second check reveals the connection has been restored, it is removed. If the illegal cable is reconnected when Bright House makes a third check, the cable company files a police report.

Bright House soft-pedals its enforcement efforts, referring to searches for "unauthorized," not illegal, connections.

That's because its main goal is to convert freeloaders into paying customers. To a surprising degree, the company is successful. Of 14,462 illegal connections found in a two-year period in Pinellas, more than 5,000 (35 percent) signed up.

"You don't make any money going through the law," said Chris Nightengale, audit manager for Bright House.

But sometimes the company considers action necessary, especially with organized piracy rings. In 2001, three Hillsborough County men were accused of setting up illegal cable service to 3,800 people. Among those arrested was a former subcontractor for Time Warner Cable (now Bright House in the Tampa Bay area).

They were charged with a combination of misdemeanors and felonies. Court records reflect only that the cases are closed but not their disposition.

In another case the same year, a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy was disciplined after it was discovered that, among other things, he had removed a filter from his cable box to get free service. A St. Petersburg police officer was fired in 1999 for using an illegal cable box.

The Florida Legislature has passed a bill that would increase the penalties for cable theft in some cases from misdemeanors to felonies. It is awaiting Gov. Jeb Bush's signature or veto.

Today, junk e-mail carries offers for cable descramblers and other devices that promise people they can beat the cable company and get free service or premium channels. Internet searches turn up thousands of sites with similar pitches.

Yet Nightengale and John Dosher, director of business operations for Bright House, play down the impact of such high-tech gizmos. The conversion to a digital cable system makes many of these devices useless, and it makes a cable system a two-way street for communications.

The set-top box will simply shut down unless it can maintain a constant flow of signals with the cable company — signals that not only carry hundreds of TV channels, video-on-demand movies and a program guide but also confirm that the set-top box is authorized.

Most of the time, the hunt for pirates is a low-key, low-tech effort. One of the cable company's best weapons turns out to be family and friends, many of whom turn in their cable-pilfering loved ones after feuds and fights.

Bright House's auditors try to cover all of its counties at least every two years, passing more than 1.6 million households in the process.

Auditors have lists of subscribers on every street. The company serves about 70 percent of Pinellas County households, so it can zero in on the 30 percent who are nonsubscribers.

On the recent tour of a Clearwater neighborhood, Butler stops at a home that gets Verizon's Americast cable TV service but Time Warner's Road Runner Internet access through Bright House.

Checking the pole, Butler sees that the Bright House connection does not have a filter to block TV signals. It takes only minutes for him to put one on. Nothing illegal was found; it was simply a precaution.

Occasionally, the cable connections will be in a back yard or not easily accessible. One resident, he says, built a deck around the underground station. He calls such checks "Easter egg hunts."

"You gain access as you can — legally," said Nightengale, his supervisor.

Butler, described as one of the company's best auditors, says many people are ready to make it right by signing up with the cable company. "Most of the time it's selling itself," he said.

Some do not accept the approach, and auditors are told not to be confrontational. "If you're in fear of your life, leave, get the police," Nightengale said. So far, Butler says those occasions have been rare in his three years with the company.