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Summary:

How about this for an unlikely winner of the 2012 London Olympics: VPN providers have been signing up lots of new users looking to access streams of the games in real time. Which makes one wonder: Wouldn’t it be better if those customers paid broadcasters instead?

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NBC is streaming some 3,500 hours of video live from the London Olympics – but access to the live streams is restricted to pay TV subscribers who have access to MSNBC and CNBC as part of their TV bundle.

That leaves out quite a few viewers. Cord cutters, for example, but also subscribers to low-cost satellite bundles have to follow the games on TV, where coverage is limited and tape-delayed.

Or they have to look elsewhere — and a number of more tech-savvy viewers are turning to VPN providers to access live streams from the BBC or other foreign media organizations. One provider told us that installs of his software tripled since the games started.

From security to free TV

Virtual private networks, or VPNs, have been around for a long time. The corporate world uses this technology to offer remote workers secure access to PCs in their office. Security-conscious web workers have been paying for VPN services to encrypt the traffic they’re sending over public Wi-Fi hotspots. And an increasing number of TV fans have been using VPNs to access foreign streaming services.

The technology behind these different use cases is fundamentally the same: A user connects to a remote server, which then forwards the traffic to other servers. One benefit can be that the connection between the user and the remote VPN server is encrypted. Another is that to other servers, it looks like the user is accessing them from a different IP address.

That second part is what a number of VPN providers have been cashing in on. Video services like Hulu or Netflix regularly block all traffic from countries they’re not officially launched in yet. Users can circumvent this by accessing a VPN provider that offers them an IP number from the same country as the service they’re trying to access.

Suddenly, we all want to be British

The BBC blocks access to its Olympics live streams to anyone who doesn’t have a U.K. IP address.

Usually, this means that users in other countries access VPNs to pretend that they live in the U.S. Hulu is especially popular with foreign VPN users, and some have even figured out how to pay for Netflix with a U.S. credit card and then access it from abroad. But during the London games, this trend was suddenly reversed — and everyone wanted to be British.

Case in point: VPN provider AnchorFree, which targets foreign Hulu fans with a special offering called Expat Shield, usually serves 93 percent of its software downloads to users outside of the U.S. However, during the Olympics, 46 percent of all new users came from the States.

But Americans weren’t the only ones looking for access to the BBC’s streaming offering. Business was up across the board for Expat Shield during the games. A company spokesperson told us that the service usually registers around 3,400 new users per day. During the games, that number went up to almost 10,700.

VPNs are here to stay

Of course, those are small numbers, which might explain why NBC doesn’t care about the money VPN providers are making with the circumvention of its pay TV authentication wall. (AnchorFree’s offering is ad-supported, but many other companies are charging between $5 and $15 for access to their servers.) Even if tens of thousands of viewers were paying for VPN services, it would still be a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of millions NBC makes with retrans fees they’re charging cable providers.

The same is true for foreign rights, which is why territorial restrictions for services like Hulu and Netflix aren’t going to go away anytime soon. Of course, that also means that people who are tech-savvy enough are going to use VPNs to access foreign video providers. And the Olympics likely helped to introduce a whole bunch of new users to this idea.

Image courtesy of (CC-BY-SA) Flickr user mark sebastian.

  1. Absolutely agree and have been enjoying my VPN-enabled viewing of Olympic coverage for the past few weeks.

    I would have happily paid NBC a few bucks for access to their online streams, but no way will I go back to paying for a full-on cable subscription.

    Relevant example: 3.2MM+ people viewed the Mars landing online vs ~1.7MM via TV (According to Mashable’s article today).

    The tech know-how necessary to sign up for/connect to a VPN is likely a barrier that limited the number of people that went that route. If they could have given NBC $7 for a month of access during the Olympics (or more for access to archives, etc.) you’d likely see a lot more takers.

    Funny enough, made this same comment a while ago. https://www.facebook.com/justinkramp/posts/10151135654967812

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  2. Thank you BBC and thank you VPN

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  3. Reblogged this on BULLETFAME.

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  4. Olympics will be over tomorrow.

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  5. NBC-MS=Failure Saturday, August 11, 2012

    NBC online Olympic coverage is an absolute joke — every time! In 2008, Silverlight was full of bugs. Divesting their MSNBC agreement did not help. This time, NBC’s greedy advertising sucks up so much bandwidth that even the 240p resolution stream chokes every 30 seconds — with 3 Mb/S bandwidth. Compare with the exceptional quality of America’s Cup online coverage.

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  6. Matthew Twist Monday, August 13, 2012

    Always used http://www.watchuktv.co.uk since ive been in the states and Im glad i had a VPN during the olympics as the NBC coverage was horrendous.

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  7. The problem with NBC’s streaming service is that the system they used would drain off all a computer’s memory and make the machine crash. I am a cable subscriber, but I got annoyed at my computer crashed, and finally started using VPN-enabled connections.

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  8. For a complete list of VPN providers check out vpnreviews.com

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