Today the BBC has decided to start clamping down on VPNs accessing the iPlayer service. What that basically means, for a lot of the ex-pats out there, is a drop in TV viewing choice.
The BBC here in the UK probably has quite a unique setup. Residents have to pay a TV licence to watch the BBC channels and listen to the various radio stations that the corporation has. They’re varied and plentiful, with local radio stations and a wide selection of TV channels including news, entertainment and childrens shows. They’re mostly home-grown and there’s never any adverts getting in the way.
However, even if residents outside of the UK wanted to pay the TV licence, there’s simply no way of doing it. So, for the large amount of ex-pats and other BBC fans, the only way to watch BBC shows is to either pay for the content via streaming services, watch it on foreign ad-supported BBC channels (like BBC America etc), pinch shows from BitTorrent or buy a VPN service and “fake” an IP address based here in the UK.
It’s a simple enough concept and one which has been working well for a number of years. You sit in your lovely home in Cyprus, pay for a VPN to be setup, then connect to your home WiFi and open BBC iPlayer. The BBC thinks you’re actually coming from an IP in Manchester (or whereever the VPN endpoint is) and automatically allows you in as a “UK viewer”. Trouble is, you’re not, and it looks like the BBC are now blocking IP ranges owned by the big VPN providers.
How successful and risky this action will be remains to be seen, because the BBC could accidentally block perfectly legitimate UK VPN users, but it seems they’re targeting the well-known VPN providers who actually promote themselves as a way to get around the geo-IP-blocking that the BBC and other streaming providers employ.
This all got me thinking, because on a recent trip abroad I noticed that a lot of bars and restaurants no longer had Sky Sports available. Gone were the “Liverpool vs Manchester Utd” matches or the all-important episodes of Eastenders that brought punters in, and instead bars were relying on foreign TV feeds instead. This, it turns out, is due to the operators of the Sky satellites (Astra) repositioning the “beam” or “footprint” so that it no longer covers southern Europe.
In some cases this has meant that many ex-pats, who invested in huge satellite dishes to get a taste of home, no longer receive a picture at all. Previously they were able to install a large satellite dish and still pick up the Sky channels, but this no longer looks to be possible.
So, the TV companies upping their game. If you dare to travel abroad you’re going to find it hard to watch the TV you love back home. Harder than ever. Sure, when you keep inside the geographical boundaries you’ve got lots of ways to watch TV. There’s apps to let you watch all the channels you subscribe to and we’ve reviewed gadgets that’ll pick up the digital TV signals from the air and stream them to your phone, but is there a way to do this when you travel abroad?
Well, there is actually. Firstly, there’s streaming websites such as TV Catchup. You can use that to watch shows over your VPN still, and I’m sure that you’ll still be able to get your BBC channels that way, but what about on-demand?
Many years ago I played around with a Slingbox and, in my opinion, they’re still the best option if you’re considering going abroad for any length of time. Someone I knew did this when they emigrated and it worked fine for them. It’ll cost you a little bit of money, but I reckon it’s the best option. Sure, I know there’s streaming boxes out there but this is a system that I know has worked for someone who’s now left the UK.
First, you’ll need to know someone back in the UK. That could be a friend or relative, it doesn’t really matter. Next, try and choose someone who has Sky but only has one box. If you don’t want to watch Sky, that’s not really a problem, so just find a good friend.
Next, if you do want to watch Sky and have the iPlayer / ITV Player / 4OD functionality (as an example) you’ll need to get them to ring up the company and ask for another Sky+ HD box. This’ll have all the bells and whistles – including the recording, the on-demand, pause, rewind and all that jazz. If you want to just have “multi-room” then that’s fine, but remember that the boxes Sky give out for “multi-room” don’t have hard drives in them, so you won’t get the recording or on-demand bits.
Now, you’ll need to get a Slingbox. These are available on eBay quite cheaply and have an “IR blaster” inside which emulates a remote control. If you want to buy new, the Slingbox 350 is £129.99. Basically put, it’ll sit in front of that Sky box you’re getting and will control it for you.
Next, get the Sky+ HD box setup and ensure that it’s connected to the WiFi network in the UK home. This is where you probably want to pay for their internet connection (this is what the person I spoke to did), or you might want to install a new internet feed (this is where things get a bit out-of-hand though and you start spending more cash). The internet connection is needed for you to watch all the on-demand TV shows. Also, the Slingbox will need it to push the resulting pictures out onto the web.
At this point you’re probably thinking that this is all quite complicated, and it is. The guy who told me about this was an ex IT engineer and still had a house in the UK, so he put the Sky box and the Slingbox in the garage – both hooked into an ethernet connection via a pretty rapid Virgin Internet connection. He didn’t experience any real contention issues or drop-outs, and he was then able to go to his house in Spain and – using his iPad – he could watch local TV and all the on-demand content from the UK. He was still (at the time) jetting between the UK and Spain and kept his BBC Licence payments going.
The last time I spoke to him, he was going to get one of those “Android on a USB stick” gadgets so he could try out the Slingbox Android app on his Spanish TV. Whether that worked I’m not totally sure, but he was always telling me how he was able to watch Top Gear on-demand from his iPad out in Spain easily. He could also watch all the local TV channels back home and pause / rewind TV shows as he was effectively controlling his Sky box from the iPad. It didn’t really matter where he was.
Ongoing costs? Well, aside from the setup / purchase of the Sky box and the Slingbox, you’ve got the cost of the broadband and the Sky package you subscribe to.
Now, there’s cheaper ways of doing this. You can ignore all the Sky business and just get a Slingbox Pro HD, put that in the loft of a friendly relative, connect it to the web and then just hook into it via your Slingbox app. The “Pro HD” one has an in-built tuner, so you just hook it into a standard TV aerial.
You are, at all times though, restricted by the speed of your internet connection. It might not be the one here in the UK. It could instead be the one out in Spain, France, Cyprus or where-ever else you are.
What I find interesting about all this is, well, just that really – it’s interesting and straightforward. It’s taking signals out of the air back in the UK and converting them into a stream, then firing that to an app on your device. You control the Slingbox and whatever other STB is connected to it.