Due to the evil and stupid nature of digital rights, South Africans (and many other countries) cannot easily enjoy the revolution that streaming media has brought into the world. Many of us believe that “video on demand” is something for the future when (a) bandwidth is better and (b) the content owners, networks, TV stations and everyone else in that alphabet soup can come to an arrangement where they still earn money.
As a result most people turn to piracy as a way of simulating video on demand. Pirating content is a trivial matter with services like Bittorrent, but it has the drawback of being illegal. Even if thisdoesn’t bother you there is a level of inconvenience that makes this unattractive compared with just driving to the DVD store.
Streaming media is a whole different story. Imagine having instant access to thousands of films, series and albums playable instantly and legally for less than R150 a month (excluding Internet bandwidth costs obviously).
Well, you can.
What Exactly is Streaming Media?
The easiest way to understand what streaming media is, is to realise you already know. YouTube is a great example of “video on demand”. Granted it’s usually short video clips of someone’s cat, but if you’ve watched YouTube you’ve experienced video on demand.
Another simple example is an in-flight entertainment system. Surf through a list of available movies, press play and the film is played instantly from the movie server on board the plane.
The truth is that there are many, many video and music streaming services available online today. They offer an almost unlimited supply of music and filmed entertainment at a small subscription fee over the internet.
Step 1: Masking Your Point of Origin
Most streaming services block access to themselves from outside licensed territories based on your IP address. An IP address is your computer or network’s identifier on the global internet. Because of the structure of the numbering system it is possible for a remote server to figure out which country you are in and only grant access if you’re in a country in which they are allowed to serve content.
Generally this is how streaming providers have managed to negotiate the right to offer streaming content. Since rights ownership is madly complicated and differs country by country, even for the same exact piece of content, many providers just haven’t bothered to try and negotiate them in every country on earth.
Fortunately IP addresses can easily be masked or spoofed. In essence, all you need is a way to tell a remote server that you are actually in the US or UK rather than in South Africa and it’s “open sesame”.
Unblock US (www.unblock-us.com) is my preferred way of doing this. At $4.95 per month it’s an incredibly simple system that requires a one-time setup and thereafter gives you access to many online streaming sites.
Step 2: Subscribing
Once you’ve got your Unblock US account setup the next step is to sign up for the streaming service of your choice.
Some, like BBC iPlayer, are free. Some, like Spotify, are ad-supported. Some, like Netflix, charge a monthly subscription ($8.95 for Netflix).
Some, like Amazon Prime, only accept US credit cards. There is no simple workaround for that one that I’m aware of. So for now those services remain out of our reach.
For Netflix simply go to the Netflix site and sign up using your normal SA credit card. Thereafter you can watch Netflix on your computer, iPad, Apple Tv or any other Netflix-capable device (The PS3, I believe, has a Netflix app too).
Step 3: Watching on your TV
My personal solution to watching Netflix on my TV is an Apple TV. This cheap (R1000 approx.) device has a built-in Netflix app provided you sign-on with a US iTunes account. It has a remote control and turns on and off very quickly.
The alternative is to connect a laptop or PC to your TV and either watch in a browser or via another third-party app that is Netflix-ready (like XBMC). In this instance there are many iPad and iPhone apps which you can use as a remote control.
There are ways to connect an iPad directly to your TV and play off the Netflix app, or (as I said above) to use a PS3, Xbox or other console or set-top box which have Netflix capabilities.
Step 4: How much Bandwidth do I need?
A typical US episode of a series (around 42 minutes) is around 200 – 300Mb of data at a reasonable quality. Double that if you want it in HD. Netflix is very smart about dropping quality if it detects congestion on your line but this can degrade to the point that it becomes annoying.
The basic spec is a 2Mb ADSL internet link with uncapped bandwidth if you want to watch every day. You could get by with a 20Gb package (about 100 episodes or 50 movies a month – very roughly).
What’s the Catch?
Simply put: there is none.
Netflix has slightly older shows and films so you can’t get the latest Dexter on it (although you can get their own commissioned series like Arrested Development and House of Cards).
Apart from that it’s a simple, cheap and awesome way to consume media.
Is this illegal?
That’s a difficult question to answer. There is no legislation that says you have to be honest about your IP address. And this level of protection is so flimsy that every streaming service knows it can be exploited in this way. Technically someone is crossing a line by doing this because the streaming service has signed a contract with the rights holder to say they won’t distribute outside of the agreed territory. But this is a case of “two wrongs do make a right”. The rights holder is complying with their agreement. And you are doing nothing illegal.
More importantly you are PAYING for this content. You are not stealing anything and the content owners are earning income from you.
Will the RIAA et al catch on eventually and stop it?
Who knows. Globally the entertainment industry is losing the battle against piracy and what they term “illegal” access to their content. They may close this loophole or they may just decide to keep earning your subscription money on a “don’t ask/don’t tell” basis. Or, eventually, this whole territorial rights management disaster may just disappear.
For right now: have fun.
(Thanks to Saul Kropman who first explained to me how to do this)