We’ve been pretty outspoken about NBC’s coverage of the Olympics. From what looked like a good start full of social media promise, the broadcaster has failed to deliver the most crucial element of all: a large, unfettered river of live sports content from the event itself, available to anyone, not just cable subscribers (coverage here, here, and here). It’s been getting a lot of grief on platforms like Twitter, but one subset of annoyed U.S. consumers have taken a more industrious route: getting VPN services.
“We have seen a very large spike in UK VPN sales in the last week,” says Phil Blancett, president of StrongVPN.com, a VPN service provider that gives customers the option of a U.S. or UK IP address. With a UK address, users can effectively visit BBC’s site, as if they were in the UK, meaning they would have full access to the Beeb’s online Olympics video offerings: live plus catch-up streams for every single event, tagged in small chunks based on individual athletes for easy navigation. A regular U.S. user would normally be geo-blocked from accessing this — it is available, theoretically, only to UK TV license fee holders.
StrongVPN is one of an army of VPN service providers that have swarmed in to offer U.S. users IP addresses from other countries so that they can consume Olympic content from streams that are normally geo-blocked. They have names like Hide My Ass, IP Vanish and Hide VPN. The last of these currently highlights the Olympics on its homepage.
Blancett is reluctant to say how many users it has already, or what a “spike” actually means in terms of numbers, citing competitive concerns. The company has been actively marketing itself on Twitter as a route to getting BBC content, courtesy of a Twitter promoted tweet, illustrated above. It offers users the option of having single-country VPN addresses for around $21/year, or a “special” package covering a UK and U.S. address for $55/year.
Much of the conversation there seems to be about companies offering routes to U.S. consumers to watch non-NBC Olympics coverage (Twitter’s river for Olympics+VPN here; Google’s river here; and other news organizations like Reuters have started to note it, too). But it’s not like NBC can do much about this. VPNs take advantage of the design of the internet, using the ability to edit IP addresses to allow users to access sites as if they were elsewhere in the world.
“It’s not the responsibility of the VPN provider how people use our connections,” says Blancett. “We provide a VPN account and a secure connection, not what happens on those connections.” He compares the role of a VPN provider to that of an ISP, which should not be monitoring how you are using your Internet connection. Another issue that these companies are making money elsewhere and have other concerns with getting their Olympics coverage right. “I really don’t think the BBC or NBC really care. They’ve got bigger fish to fry,” he says.
We’re still trying to figure out just how much BBC content is getting streamed outside of the UK, although it’s a tricky business. The host broadcaster, OBS, who was appointed by the IOC and London’s Olympic Committee, LOCOG, provides feeds for all rights holders. It’s the IOC and OBS who are responsible for monitoring international online usage. (We’re reaching out to ask if they have some stats to share on this.)
It’s not clear that the BBC is able to chart non-UK users, anyway: the BBC has been getting some good traffic online around the Olympics but nothing that seems earth-shattering. The most recent daily figure it has was for Monday, when it had 9.7 million global browsers for bbc.co.uk/sport, with 7.2m in the UK, beating Sunday’s record of 8.3m globally.
Generally, the BBC would see viewing spikes around certain events that would interest a UK audience, and this doesn’t appear to be any different with this year’s Olympics: Tom Daley’s diving events, Rebecca Adlington’s medal win, and the cycling at the weekend, TechCrunch understands, have all been popular streams. That means that either there aren’t really that many people from outside the UK watching, or that the BBC is not able to measure them.
The BBC has only provided the following response to us on this topic: “As the official Olympic Broadcaster in the UK, the BBC geo-blocks its online content, so that video and audio streams are not available to audiences outside the UK.”
Meanwhile, sites like StrongVPN have, up to now, developed much of their reputation for serving countries like China, which geo-block a number of sites like Facebook and Twitter for political reasons. Blancett notes that his company has 1,000 servers set up in San Francisco mainly to serve its China customer base, for example, but there are others, too: “Users in Belize can’t use Skype unless they’re on a VPN,” he notes.
But as the amount of content — and specifically video content — has continued to grow online, so has the desire among consumers to get it where they want it, and when they want it. And just as torrent sites arose out of a time when getting content elsewhere simply wasn’t there, so has the market for VPNs and what they are getting used for, too.