Breaking down pay TV walls with VPN

12 Apr 2012

Do local pay-TV operators stand a chance once the floodgates are opened up and OTT players get direct access to the viewers?

Studios have long used country-specific licensing as an excuse to keep prices up and quality down. In Thailand, the price for a typical pay TV package runs between $50-65 a month on TrueVisions. In Singapore, Starhub’s packages start at $25 or so and quickly go up as more channels and HD is added.

To put that in comparison, in the UK or US, sites like the BBC iPlayer and Hulu offer one week’s worth of content for free online.

Of course, all of this is geo-IP locked and only of academic interest. Or is it?

There are VPN services that offer UK or US based end-points for as little as $5 a month, but the quality varies. It is a bit more expensive and much faster to adopt a DIY approach and take out a virtual server and configure it as a VPN server.

A minimal setup at Rackspace London would cost about $10 a month, excluding data transfer. 100 GB - enough for around 50 hours - would double that. Besides, the censorship officials in Thailand keep shutting down VPN services as they can be used to circumvent the government’s heavy handed censorship, but they would hardly dare shut down cloud computing providers. Even if they do, getting a new IP is just a few clicks away.

In a nutshell, that means taking out a virtual server, installing an Ubuntu server image (or other Linux flavour of your choice), installing PPTP (point to point tunnelling protocol - a basic form of VPN), setting a few parameters here and there and voila.

For those not technically inclined it is possible to take a typical Wi-Fi router, flash a custom Linux ROM to it (of course, routers have custom roms), overclock it a bit (VPN encryption does tax those old ARM CPUs and of course, routers can be overclocked) and handed to someone totally tech averse to use as a passthrough box for when they want to pretend to be British.

Once up and running, one can surf the internet as if in the UK, geo-IP locked video sites and all.

Beyond free TV, competition means that Netflix and LoveFilm have prices as low as $8 or $9 a month. Netflix has the advantage of a better selection of TV series and runs on Android tablets too, while Love Film has better movies and the ability to pay per view for titles movies on top of the monthly subscription, but is locked to Apple devices. Of course, both support streaming to a PC. Ultimately it is a matter of personal preference as to which to go for.

So in total, the price to pay for a good on-demand pay-TV solution with a huge library is hovering around $30 a month.

How can domestic service providers fight back other than by urging authorities to crack down on VPN for “national security” concerns? Bundling and pushing triple-play is one answer. The need for localised content is another.

Meanwhile, spare a thought for the convoluted path the old episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot I am now watching has to take around the world before it appears on my HDTV beside me. Then marvel at the ability of being able to watch it at all in the first place.

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