The Winter Olympics is just days away, with the Sochi Games expected to draw a global TV audience of about 3 billion. NBCUniversal, which paid $4.3 billion for U.S. rights to the Olympics through 2020, is offering comprehensive coverage, with 539 hours of television broadcasts. And as it did with London Olympics, the network will be streaming every single competition live on its website and mobile apps. A sports junkie’s dream. But there’s a big catch for cord-cutters.
Most of those television hours will be on NBCSN, the company’s cable sports channel. Even more disappointing, however, is that NBC, which is owned by Comcast, is once again restricting all of its live streaming coverage to cable/satellite/telco subscribers, who must log in with the username and password of their pay TV account. No cable bill, no access.
All is not lost, however. Here’s how you can catch the Olympic action even if you’ve cut the cable cord.
Although the bulk of the TV coverage will be on cable, NBC is still offering 185 hours of programming on its broadcast network, including the nightly prime-time show hosted by Bob Costas. With a digital antenna, you can grab that over-the-air (OTA) signal for free. In an earlier cable-cutter story, I looked at a couple of the antenna options currently available, with the decor-friendly Mohu Curve and more powerful Clearstream 2, each pulling in several dozen OTA channels with great reception to my Brooklyn brownstone.
In addition to the cost savings, digital antennas also provide uncompressed HD video, which is visibly better than the compressed signal that cable companies transmit in order to conserve bandwidth. If you want a picture that’s as sharp and clear as what you see in the TV section of your local Best Buy, a digital antenna can get you there.
NBC’s broadcast coverage begins February 6 at 8 p.m. EST with the inaugural slopestyle snowboarding competition. Daily coverage will consist of afternoon broadcasts and a prime-time show. A late-night recap of events beings at 12 a.m. EST. Because Sochi is nine hours ahead of the Eastern time zone, virtually all of the events on NBC will be tape-delayed. The two exceptions are the women’s and men’s hockey finals, which will be aired live on February 20 and 23, respectively. Coverage ends with the closing ceremony on February 23. NBC provides a complete listing of events and times.
While NBC restricts its streaming content to pay TV customers, Olympics broadcasters in other English-speaking countries don’t impose such a draconian limitation. The BBC is offering more than 650 hours of live competition on its streaming site and Canada’s CBC network is serving up 12 feeds of live event coverage online. The networks offer mobile apps as well. None of this viewing requires a TV subscription or login.
Due to licensing agreements with the IOC, however, both the BBC and CBC are required to restrict streaming access to domestic users, a practice known as geo-blocking. Attempting to access video streams on those sites from the U.S. will bring up a message saying that the content is not available in your location. How does a website know where you live? The answer lies in your IP address. This is a unique number, generated automatically by your service provider, that reveals your physical location when you’re online.
The good news is that you can mask your local IP address, replacing it with one that makes it appear to the BBC or CBC that you are located within their respective borders. The easiest way to do this is with a VPN (virtual private network) service. VPN services are popular with privacy-minded users who want anonymous web browsing and encrypted browser data. But here, we’re concerned with just a single feature: the ability to make your computer appear as if it’s in a country other than the U.S. This neat trick is your ticket to live streams during the Olympics.
One of the most intuitive, easy to use VPNs I’ve found is TunnelBear. A desktop app is available for both the Mac and PC and there are mobile apps for Android and iOS devices as well. TunnelBear offers access to IP addresses in the U.K. and Canada (along with the U.S., Germany, Japan, and Australia). Using the service on your computer involves nothing more than a quick installation of the app, toggling its on/off switch, and choosing the country your new IP address will come from. Don’t worry, after turning off or quitting the app, your regular ISP-generated address automatically kicks back in. TunnelBear’s mobile apps are self-configuring, so after downloading, the only setup you need to take is to allow network access on Android, or enable your VPN setting on iOS.
TunnelBear’s apps are free. Monthly service is $5 for unlimited data use and the ability to use the service simultaneously on one computer and two mobile devices ( you can install the app on as many devices as you wish). There is a free account option, but it’s limited to 500MB of data per month, an amount you would quickly blow through with even a small amount of video streaming.
For $5 you get the convenience of watching live streams of every Olympic competition, plus a chance to experience commentary from outside the U.S. And if you’re not careful, you may just find a new favorite TV series or two on the BBC.
Is this legal? It’s a bit of a gray area. Tech-savvy users have long relied on IP masking to evade national restrictions on everything from movies to political dissent. Streaming these Olympic video feeds from inside the U.S. does indeed violate the Terms of Service of the BBC and CBC, which state that their streams are intended for a domestic audience. Mitch Stoltz, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, argues that, “While there are differences among the courts about the use of masking IP addresses to gain access to a site, it is pretty well established the simply violating the Terms of Service alone is not sufficient to warrant a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.”
Stoltz acknowledges that it is possible for charges to be brought against an individual, as a public example to discourage the practice, for instance, but believes, “it’s very unlikely.” The BBC did not respond to a request for comment on the practice. The CBC replied with a statement saying, “As the host broadcaster for Canadian Olympic coverage, we’re collaborating with our partners at the IOC to identify and resolve breaches of our geo-fenced coverage as they arise and are flagged to us.” This would seem to imply a technological, rather than litigious response, if IP masking were found to be a significant issue.
Your main decision then would seem to be whether to stream from the BBC in the UK or from the CBC in Canada. With IP masking, your data is actually being passed through a server located in the country you’ve selected. The further the physical distance between you and that server, the greater the lag in sending and receiving data. TunnelBear co-founder Ryan Dochuk explains that, “With any VPN service, you’re never going to get more than 80-90% of your ISP’s maximum bandwidth. If you’re in Australia and choosing a server all the way in the UK, you’re going to have a slower response.” The faster your Internet connection is to begin with, of course, the less of an issue this performance hit will be when streaming video.
My home broadband connection’s real-world speed tops out between 20-25Mbps (my ISP advertises it as 30Mbps). Using TunnelBear, this connection speed can drop to about 16Mbps when connecting through their UK server. This is still enough bandwidth to watch fullscreen episodes in HD from the BBC’s site. If your broadband service has an advertised maximum speed of 15Mbps or less, however, you’re probably going to have buffering issues even with a standard definition stream. In that case you’re better off trying a (geographically closer) Canadian IP address for the CBC feed or, alternatively, upgrading to a faster broadband tier.
Whether you opt for an antenna, VPN service, or both, you have viable options for catching all of the Olympic action, even if you’ve cut the cable cord. Let the games begin.