Thanks to the increased availability and affordability of high-speed internet, the popularity of online streaming services is continuing to grow. With Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu all offering subscriptions and creating their own content, box-set culture has not just become normal but expected. People expect to be able to watch TV shows and films when and where they want to. But what can you do when your access is restricted?
You may not know it by this name, but it is likely you have experienced geo-blocking. Any time you have tried to watch a video or use a streaming service only to receive an error message along the lines of “this content is not available in your region”, you have been a victim of geo-blocking.
The method is a common way to restrict content so that only people from certain countries can access it, by referring to their IP address. Each device connected to the internet is assigned a unique IP address and these can be used to pinpoint a user’s geographical location. By referring to a database, content providers can determine which IP addresses they will allow to access their content.
Like a digital version of region-locked DVDs, geo-blocking can be a contractual or copyright requirement. When streaming services license content from studios and networks, they may need to restrict access to ensure that deals made with streaming services in other countries are not infringed.
BBC iPlayer is also an excellent example of this. As the service is paid for by UK citizens, its content is protected by geo-blocking. This is understandable, but what if you are a Brit abroad and are unable to keep up with Doctor Who while on holiday?
The solution is a VPN.
What is a VPN?
Put simply, a VPN (Virtual Private Network) is an online service that offers users increased privacy and security for their online activity. This is done by providing a secure and encrypted server, allowing for effectively anonymous browsing.
A VPN service is comprised of a collection of servers that are based all over the world. Users simply sign up to a VPN client, log in and select the server they wish to use. They can then continue browsing or streaming as normal. This process is known as tunneling.
When connected, all of the data that is sent and received, including passwords and history, is encrypted so that third-parties are unable to access the information.
Without a VPN, your IP address would be visible to your internet service provider (ISP) along with details of your online activity. Through a VPN, this data is masked and all your ISP can see is that you are using a VPN. An added benefit is that hackers and cybercriminals are also unable to see your IP and activity, keeping your data safe from prying eyes.
How to access your content
For our Brit living abroad, setting up a VPN service and selecting a UK server will mask their IP address. This means that services like Netflix will think they are accessing content from the UK, and offer them UK content. In addition, a VPN will offer users an extra level of privacy and encryption to their other browsing activity.
For people who don’t live in America, it’s a common frustration that new episodes of series such as Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale are broadcast internationally weeks or even months after their US premiere. In the past, this was merely frustrating, but because of the immediacy of social media, there is a risk that any major deaths or plot twists are ruined by looking at trending topics, and anything short of a social media blackout could risk ruining the whole series.
Again, a VPN could help. If you have a paid subscription with the relevant US streaming service, choosing to access your VPN through a US server will allow you to access otherwise blocked content, meaning you no longer have to live in fear of spoilers.
It’s important to make sure that you are only accessing legally available content. For some people, the prospect of online anonymity could encourage illegal streaming and file sharing. However your data still exists, and should a user be suspected of illegal activity, VPN providers may be required to provide their user data to the authorities.
Speed and quality
As the popularity of streaming has grown, so too has the quality of streaming video. High Definition is now commonplace and with UHD and 4K becoming more common on premium streaming services, it is important that you pick a VPN that can match the speed you need – after all, nobody wants that dreaded buffering symbol ruining the tension of a thrilling car chase.
While there are many free VPN options available, their speed and stability often lag behind paid options. If you’re going to be using a VPN for streaming on a regular basis, it’s worth considering a paid option to avoid pauses and pixelated connections.