Hong Kong moves to close World Cup loophole

Satellite antennas with China access targeted

HONG KONG — Fans in football-crazed Hong Kong were dealt another blow in their campaign for free World Cup coverage after local regulators moved to close a loophole that allowed locals to watch games via neighboring China's television channels.

Hong Kong's World Cup coverage is limited to a cable operator, but apartment buildings with satellite antennae can receive signals carrying China's CCTV, allowing locals to access the state broadcaster's coverage of the tournament for free.

The former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997, but continues to maintain a separate government and a separate telecommunications regime.

Hong Kong's Office of the Telecommunications Authority issued a statement last week asking local buildings with satellite antenna to block out CCTV's World Cup coverage, warning that violators "may attract civil liability" for copyright infringement.

Opposition lawmaker Albert Chan urged Hong Kong regulators to show leniency in enforcing a technicality.

"Hong Kong always puts economic interests first. It's depriving the right of many citizens to watch the World Cup. We are annoyed and extremely dissatisfied," he told The Associated Press in a phone interview Monday.

Chan said many of his constituents have complained about the lack of free World Cup coverage.

While the Hong Kong rights holder, Cable TV, usually provides footage of key World Cup matches to Hong Kong's two free-to-air broadcasters, this year the three parties were locked in bitter negotiations that ended with the cable operator only offering the matches to free digital channels, excluding poorer neighborhoods without digital coverage.

Chan said he himself was a football fan and doesn't have Cable TV, so he watches matches at the homes of friends who do.

Local shopping malls have also been airing matches on big-screen television sets.

CCTV said it only has a mandate to offer coverage to viewers within its borders and had no choice but to abide by the terms of its contract with football's governing body, FIFA.

"Those are the terms of the agreement we signed. Unfortunately, we can't satisfy the viewers in Hong Kong," a duty officer at CCTV's World Cup programming department said Monday. As common with officials in China, she declined to give her name.

Hong Kong, a densely populated city of 7 million people, inherited its love of football from its British colonial rulers. Locals are often found testing their own skills on smaller-than-regulation cement pitches sandwiched between skyscrapers and staying up late for European club matches  a trend boosted every four years by the World Cup.

With the World Cup now in full swing, so are Hong Kong's illegal gambling syndicates. Hong Kong police said Sunday they smashed one such ring, seizing more than 66 million Hong Kong dollars ($8.5 million) in betting slips and arresting 25 people.