Bandit cable

Thre cable TV service run by crimunals in Rio´s favelas was much cheaper than its legal successors.

Last month the Rio police, supported by marines in armoured cars and a cloud of TV cameras, stormed the Rocinha favela, unopposed by the drug traffickers. Behind the media theatre, the policy of reoccupation seems to be working. Police stations are followed by social services. Tourists and banks are venturing in. Shopkeepers don´t have to pay protection any more. The favela dwellers are delighted to be freed from the rule of mobsters, right?

Up to a point, Lord Copper. They now have to pay for their electricity instead of stealing it from the street lighting cables. Tough. They also – and here I have much more sympathy – have to pay a lot more for TV. As air reception is very poor on the steep hillsides, TV was supplied over an illegal cable network, the gatonet, controlled of course by the drug gangs. The going rate was 15-30 reais a month for up to 120 channels, including the free-to-air ones that carry telenovelas and football, and hacked paying film channels. I´m quite impressed by the bandits´ technical achievement here.

A gatonet office in Bangu favela

Source
Favelistas
are now being offered the service by legal providers for twice the price: 40 to 80 reais. The minimum wage in Brazil is 543 reais a month, and many favelistas will be living off less. 10% of their income just for TV!

The gatonet was provided by murderous outlaw kleptocrats, but their legal Brazilian counterparts are in this area even worse for the poor. My (non-poor) daughter in Lille pays 30 euros a month (72 reais) for 20-megabit ADSL (the slow offer!), 100 free TV channels and many others at a reasonable a la carte charge, and unlimited phone calls in France.

It´s not I think an accident that there are no low-power repeaters on Rio´s many hills to provide decent air TV reception, or that the municipality has not simply taken over the seizedgatonet and run it as a very profitable public service. There are TV satellites over Brazil, but owned by Globo and Sky (from which we buy a poor-value package). The selection of free-to-air channels is very thin. In Europe the TV satellites are owned by Astra, a Luxembourg corporation independent of the TV networks it carries, including Sky´s encrypted ones and FTA ones from the BBC, ITV, and Germany. There must be a profit opportunity in Rocinha for pirate satellite TV using hacked second-hand Sky receivers.

Brazil has the typical second-world problem of governance. It seems to lack a professional higher civil service; ministers are free to staff their fiefs with party cronies, which helps explain the high level of corruption and the serial scandals in Brasilia. In state capitals, it doesn´t even become a scandal. A technocracy can be a force for competition if it´s given a mandate. The European Commission is unideologically power-hungry, so it´s super-statist in agriculture (inheriting French policy) and strongly pro-competition in electricity and telecoms (inheriting German policy).

Lacking technocrats, it would still be possible for Brazil´s vigorous democracy to provide checks on monopolists. But the Brazilian left is typically soggy on competition. Partly it´s ideology; if you demonise all capitalists, you lose the ability to discriminate between useful and exploitative ones, and this continues when you make your peace with them. Partly it´s the organisational base: for the PT, the unions, representing a labour elite, many working for public and parastatal organisations. Monopolists can offer safe jobs with good wages. (A necessary but not a sufficient condition; see Amazon´s sweatshop warehouses.)

It´s possible for a right-wing party to be pro-competition, if it has a liberal ideology (in the European free-market sense) and a base representing small business, like Thatcher´s Conservatives or the German Free Democrats. If the losing conservative candidate in the last Brazilian general election, Jose Serra, had such a vision, he certainly didn´t articulate it.

Which brings me to the Republicans, another party of businessmen. GOP policies clearly only reflect the interests of big monopolistic corporations, not small ones. On credit card fees, the GOP backs the extortionate fees of the Visa and Mastercard duopoly (>2% per sale against 0.5% in Europe) against the interests of retailers, garage owners and Joe the Plumber. It opposed public works in a recession, a lifeline to small construction companies; and Obama´s moves towards universal health care, an obvious interest of every American employer. How many minutes a week does a Danish employer spend worrying about the health insurance of her employees, and how many staff does she pay to handle it? Zero.

Thomas Frank, in his famous What´s the matter with Kansas?, noted the ¨false consciousness¨ of Republican American workers who vote their cultural biases against their material interests. Does not the same apply to Republican small businessmen?

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

9 thoughts on “Bandit cable”

  1. Brazil also has a decent second world, free universal healthcare system, that is entitled to every citizen ..free to vistors too, for emergency or local clinic treatment, as best I can tell.. About a quarter of its citizens opt out for private health care system, better facilities, less line ups, if they can afford the private health insurance premiums.

  2. James Wimberley:

    “Last month the Rio police, supported by marines in armoured cars and a cloud of TV cameras, stormed the Rocinha favela, unopposed by the drug traffickers. ”

    Wow. Conventional forces move in with force, and the guerrillas/bandits/etc. fade away, and don’t choose a direct battle. That *must* mean that the government is winning.

    “Behind the media theatre, the policy of reoccupation seems to be working. Police stations are followed by social services. Tourists and banks are venturing in. Shopkeepers don´t have to pay protection any more. The favela dwellers are delighted to be freed from the rule of mobsters, right?”

    This is the key, not the armored sweep. Is it actually happening?

    1. Police stations (UPPs – Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora) have SFIK been installed in every reocupied favela except the Alemão. The reoccupation there (with shooting and casualties) was brought forward after an outbreak of intergang warfare, and absurdly the UPP schedule wasn´t adapted, so this favela is still occupied by soldiers.
      The advertised objectives are quite realistic. The authorities do not expect drug trafficking to disappear; they simply want to deprive the traffickers of territorial fiefdoms.

  3. “Brazil also has a decent second world, free universal healthcare system, that is entitled to every citizen ..free to vistors too, for emergency or local clinic treatment, as best I can tell.. ”

    Why do I doubt that this system extends in any real way into the depths of vast, miserable slums?

  4. A thought-provoking meditation. Thank you.

    Granted that the world is a complicated place, it is sad to think humans are not better at coming up with ideologies that enable them to organize society in my efficient and humane ways. The Right cannot think of any way forward, that doesn’t involve the shameless and cruel exploitation and oppression of others. The Left cannot be realistic or practical. Both insist on moral narratives of good guys and bad guys and magic.

  5. Where do I sign up for your daughter’s digital service plan? I currently pay more than twice that for cable (TV and internet) and it is the least expensive option in a city of 300,000.

    1. Sven: I provided a link. Here´s another page listing and linking to the competing providers in Lille.
      I wish I could get these prices too in Spain – the Spanish market has not been fully prised loose from the old monopoly incumbent Telefonica. It´s odd but true that French technocrats, perhaps drawing the lesson from the ultimate failure of the statist Minitel (for a while in the late 1970s France was the most wired country on earth), enforce a rigorously competitive ISP market.

  6. There are several countries that have a similar form of pirate infrastructure, notably Pakistan and Romania – typically your friendly local entrepreneur runs DOCSIS cable to his customers, and has the file server/cache proxy at his offices as well as the broadcast receiver and cable head-end equipment. He buys service from an aggregator, who provides an Ethernet link to their own offices, The aggregator buys actual Internet service. Everybody squats in RFC-1918 space and when you actually want to reach the Internet, what you get is a VPN tunnel out to the actual ISP.

    It’s pretty good for raw speed (no copper wires) but it’s more pirate TV with canned porn and downloads, and rather sporky Internet service tacked on. I did a post on the company blog about this a while back.

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