NBC’s decision to restrict live streaming of the Vancouver Winter Olympics to subscribers of cable, satellite or IPTV services is making many cord cutters scramble. We’ve heard anecdotes from former cable customers flocking to gyms or stop by friends for surprise visits while figure skating and hockey games are on TV. Even current cable customers able to jump through the authentication hoops of NBC’s Olympics may be looking for alternatives. After all, NBC is only streaming some 400 hours of the games in real time and once again reserving key competitions for broadcast TV, with some of them airing while many of us are stuck at work.
Of course, there are also other, slightly less legitimate ways to watch the games online. A number of web sites have been touting for weeks that they’ll carry live streams of the Olympics, and sports fans have been looking to P2P video clients for years to bypass TV pay walls. How easy to use are these services, and how good is the video quality? I decided to find out and give different ways of pirating the Olympics a try.
First, a word to the wise: We don’t recommend to try any of this at home. Not only are you bending the rules, but there’s also a very real risk of catching mal-ware while looking for pirated sports streams. Scammers have been stepping up their game in recent weeks, and countless web sites ask you to fill out surveys or install untrusted ActiveX plug-ins in order to access streams of the games. Please don’t fall for these tricks.
However, users willing and able to avoid these scams can theoretically get access to full coverage of the games online without NBC Olympics. Here’s what I tried, in the name of science:
Live streaming sites
Sites like Justin.tv and Ustream used be be a popular way to catch unauthorized relays of sports broadcasts. However, these days, most of these streams disappear as soon as they go up. Evan Solomon from Justin.tv told me that his company has been working closely with NBC for years on copyright issues, which led to the development of an instant take-down system during the 2008 Olympics.
The site is also using an automated filtering system, and these efforts seem to largely pay off: I was only able to find one live stream carrying a hockey game on Justin.tv, and that stream was so blurry that viewers in the chat room kept asking things like: “Who is winning? I can’t see anything!” Oh, and it also didn’t have any audio. I guess you can fool any filters if you make your feed unrecognizable. However, there were a number of feeds that promised to carry video from the Olympics, only to link to sites asking people to answer bogus questionnaires, and presumably install mal-ware on their PCs. For the record, I didn’t find any working streams on Livestream.com, Ustream or Stickam either.
Chinese P2P video streaming clients used to be a sports fan’s best friend, but the many have started to clamp down on unauthorized sports streams as well. I wasn’t able to find any live coverage of the games with TVUNetworks, PPLive or Veetle. But using the Windows-only StreamTorrent client proved to be much more fruitful, making it possible to watch the Women’s Hockey Game between the USA and Finland with around 300kbps without any significant buffering.
The bit rate wasn’t quite enough for a good full-screen experience, but a great way to follow the game while I was working – and I suspect that’s how many people will be using this. I also found a stream of a curling game transmitted with 941kbps, which looked great in full-screen mode on my 15″ laptop screen, but ended up buffering a little too often. It seems like there’s a number of fake sites set up that seem to provide StreamTorrent downloads but instead try to spread mal-ware or get you to buy subscriptions, but P2P sports forums seem to be a good way to avoid the worst pitfalls.
Speaking of torrents: Sports fans have been busy uploading HD versions of pretty much all major competitions to torrent sites. These videos usually appear soon after the actual competition ends. I obviously wasn’t able to catch any of the action in real time this way, but I did get a nice, crisp HD recording of this week’s snowboarding finals — commercial free, no less.
NBC may skimp on its online coverage, but broadcasters in other countries are going all out with multiple simultaneous live channels, streaming every minute of the games in real time. Most of these sites determine by your IP address whether or not you’re allowed to watch the videos in question. However, there are numerous commercial proxy services that offer to tunnel your connection, in turn masking your country of online origin. I wanted to get access to the live streams provided by the BBC, so I searched for a proxy providing me with a UK IP address, and ended up going with a company that offers unlimited access for $9 a month.
What followed was a little bit of tinkering with the VPN settings of my Macbook, and blimey! I was British. Or rather my public IP address was, and BBC’s Olympics site provided me with the best video experience I got from all the approaches I tried. We’re talking about crisp, full-screen streaming with multiple live channels, accompanied by some nice gents making sarcastic jokes about the weather in Canada. What else can you wish for?
For the record, I also tried to get access to the streams provided by the Olympics website of the European Broadcaster’s Union, but couldn’t get the video player to work, despite being offered full access to all of the site’s static content.
Related content on NewTeeVee: Where to Watch the 2010 Winter Olympics Online, Watching the 2010 Winter Olympics Online Around the World
Related content on GigaOm Pro: The Ultimate Guide To TV Everywhere (subscription required)