A user reviews the "Blackbird" FTA Receiver


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Scott Greczkowski

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Original poster
Staff member
Cutting Edge
Sep 7, 2003
Newington, CT
The following was sent to me annonymously, the user wanted me to post this to the site.

While the unit could be considered a hacking device, I see no harm in posting it since the unit is no longer being manufactured. I also feel that this reciever got bad press as there are a number of FTA receivers and FTA computer video cards which can do the same thing.


So, What’s a “Blackbird”?
by A. Nonymous

Around the last week of February this year a new vocabulary word hit the satellite television discussion groups, “Blackbird”. Touted by underground web sites and questionable Ebay listings, this new “free-to-air” MPEG-2 receiver is purported to be able to decrypt Nagravision encoded programming in addition to receiving the typical unencrypted C-band, Ku-band and DBS-band signals of its bretheren. This would, in effect, make DISH Network and Bell ExpressVu programming free to owners of this new box.

As a long time free-to-air enthusiast, the prospect of an FTA box that could handle Nagravision was intriguing to me. I contacted a net acquaintance who bought one through a web site in Canada and tried it out on my FTA system, using my own dishes and switches. What follows is my review.

First, a disclaimer: I subscribe to both DISH Network and Bell ExperssVu, one of them through a broker, so in doing this review I had no intention of defrauding DISH or BEV of their rightful revenue. If the chatter on Blackbird support groups is any indication, though, this is not the intent of the vast majority of those purchasing this device, which probably numbers between one and two hundred.

The Blackbird is a non-descript black box satellite receiver with the words “FREE TO AIR” printed in place of a name and the DVB logo below that. It comes with a 38 page users guide and a DiSEqC 2.0 4x1 switch, or at least it did from my friend’s source. The receiver has composite and s-video outputs, a satellite antenna input, coax pass-through and an RS-232 for software updates. The manual is just your basic FTA receiver set-up guide and makes no mention of the added Nagravision capability.

For the purpose of this review, I was allowed to reset the receiver to factory settings. Blackbird comes pre-programmed with the transponder frequencies of lots of North American satellites, but I quickly noted that though the “ExpressVu” listing for 91W longitude was quite up-to-date and accurate, the listing for 119W said “Echo 4”, which any enthusiast will tell you moved out of that location long ago. The Echo 4 settings also included the wrong polarizations for many of the lower numbered transponders. It was quickly clear that this receiver was aimed at ExpressVu, not DISH.

I connected the Blackbird to my own DiSEqC 1.0 switch (there are online reports that it does not work well with the supplied DiSEqC 2.0 switch), and scanned BEV’s NIMIQ 1 and DISH’s Echostar 7. The TV channel list filled up with hits from both satellites. The radio list (FTA receivers separate television and audio-only channels into two lists) also filled with channels, but a few of those were television channels and many more were invalid. It seems Blackbird has a glitch when scanning DISH sats: it chokes on some DISH 119W transponder 2 channels, putting them in the radio list, and generates a set of TV channel names from 119W TP 2 and puts them in the radio list of every subsequent transponder. A half dozen or so television channels (the number varied each time I scanned TP 2) show up in the radio list. BET, Animal Planet, HBO-East, TECH TV, FUSE, Court TV, CNNFN etc. are included in this list. Multiple scans, deletions and manipulations later, I managed to get all but CNNFN scanned into the TV channel side but HBO-E was never unlockable and I had to shift to radio to watch CNNFN. Hundreds of invalid radio stations polluted the radio side with duplicate names of TP 2 TV channels and had to be deleted. None of these problems occurred with ExpressVu. This appears to be a fundamental incompatibility between the way the Blackbird reads the channel information and electronic program guide information from the DISH datastream.

A couple of notes on FTA receivers: 1) Channels are added to your channel list in the order you scan them on the satellite, not the order they show up on the subscription service, 2) if the transponder or identification codes of a channel changes, you have to rescan it in and delete the old information. FTA receivers are all manual do-it-yourself devices. Blackbird is no different. In fact, when you first scan channels into it the receiver will display a blank screen and “Scrambled” whenever you tune to an encrypted channel. This is the same as every other FTA receiver on the market and make it just as inconvenient to keep current.

Where Blackbird is different, and where it gets its 200% - 300% retail markup, is the addition of a menu called “Conditional Access”. Selecting this menu brings up a “PFF” submenu, which in turn leads to a screen with 8 boxes. If you scroll to each box and select the eight hexadecimal codes that match the “public keys” that are currently active on the ExpressVu or DISH datastreams, the Blackbird will attempt to unscramble those scrambled channels. It performs that task pretty well, in fact, making the “Scrambled” message go away and the video lock in within about 6-7 seconds or less in most cases. This is not a solution for smooth channel surfing. The one notable exception to decryption, as stated above, was with HBO-E, which for some unknown reason never gets unscrambled. These keys are available on the Web, or are at the moment pending litigation against any or all of the providers of this information, and can be copied down and entered in about five minutes. BEV and DISH change these keys every few weeks or months, and the current keys are about a month old. Every time the keys change they must be entered anew.

After 72 hours of play, I had to give the Blackbird back. Overall I would have to say it was an interesting experience playing with it, but I’ll keep my subscriptions just the same. Thanks anyway. I doubt BEV and DISH are likely to see any serious threat to revenue from this receiver. First off, most end-users of direct-to-home satellite services are not ready to deal with something that’s not plug-and-play and doesn’t update itself. Second, Blackbird does not work with DISH 500 twin and quad LNB’s, nor does it do DishPro, so it can’t just be substituted for a subscription receiver. Third, the box is selling for between $370 and $450 U.S., which with no guarantee of continued decryption capability in the face of card swaps and security upgrades at both BEV and DISH, is unlikely to entice a very large following. What it will do is embarass both companies and entice a fair number of naieve newbies who probably bought cable descrambler boxes in the past, and a few FTA enthusiasts, to check it out for at least as long as it takes to tune in all of the porn channels once for free. <fin>
Since the receiver is not being made anymore and since there were not many made Dish and BEV may overlook it. Hackers may want to see how this receiver works though and make their own box just like it to do the same thing.
Well the blackbird does work and that was a early glitch and has been corrected and in canada we call it the silverbullet and it is being produced in numbers and is not going away, in fact bell and dish have them and are trying to figure out ways of stopping them. They do exist and are being sold in numbers and it works period.
Would it be safe to assume that under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, it is illegal to own one of these boxes in the "land of the free"?
Could not be sure because it is a fta reciever but scott has hit it on the head , it is not aimed at dish, mostly at bell and one of the reasons is that bell canada says that any american recieving a expressvu signal from using a avr/3m or illegal subscription or broker is not welcome and is breaking the law. Now in the us there are alot of canadians who want to watch what is going on at home and bell could care less, starchoice on the other hand is looking the other way when brokers are used. The silverbullet is being sold from large dbs providers in canada who have web sites in russia and the carribbean. In canada we do have a hate love relation with bell canada.
I would assume that it would be illegal to even have that manufactured, that the manufacturer could be shut down, or at least be made to prevent the scrambled channels from being able to come in.

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