Hours before the kickoff of World Cup 2014, Benn Jordan took to his computer to watch the Brazilian team battle Croatia. But because he doesn’t have a cable television subscription, he and scores of soccer fans were shut out of ESPN’s stream of the game online.
That proved to be a minor inconvenience. Within minutes Jordan was able to use a technical workaround that allowed him to charade as a U.K. resident to watch a free British stream of the game from his Chicago home.
Jordan’s tactics appear to be more common as consumers look for loopholes, technical workarounds and controversial new services to get all of their content online, even as cable and satellite providers work to keep their most valuable shows within paid subscriptions.
Like many popular television programs, online viewing is still only available to those who can prove they also subscribe to cable or satellite television bundles of channels. That’s true for many sports programs and HBO hits such as “Game of Thrones.” But increasingly, consumers are finding ways to defy the requirements of cable companies. And a niche industry has emerged offering software that helps consumers cut the cable cord but still get the content they want online.
“Tired of cable? Cut the cord! Learn how to watch LIVE sports without cable here,” software company Ghost Path VPN marketed on its blog and through tweets and messages on Facebook. Through a simple software download, consumers can create virtual private networks that mask or change one’s location. The VPN services have also become popular for consumers seeking privacy and security against hackers. VPNs like AnchorFree are hugely popular to circumvent censors in countries such as China and Turkey.
Others use the controversial online service Aereo, a live television service under review by the Supreme Court over allegations by broadcasters that the subscription service violates copyright law. Many live matches are hard for sports fans to view online, but VPNs and Aereo have offered easy ways around restrictions.
For MLB.TV subscribers, the ability to see live games online is handicapped by blackout restrictions for local games. Sarah Moon, a Portland, Oregon, resident, gladly pays $130 a year for the streaming service but is blocked out of watching Seattle Mariners games.
“I believe in paying for content and feel that it is really important to do so,” said Moon, a tech consultant. She pays for the premium Pandora music service, Hulu Plus, Netflix and a half-dozen magazines online and on paper. “But when it came to cable, it was insane how much we were paying each month — north of $100 — for just a few channels that we were watching.”
MLB’s willingness to put live games online seemed like a great fix. But soon, Moon realized the games she wanted to watch most were unavailable online. Broadcasts of Mariners games were rarely on over-the-air television and only available through cable channels. Her husband, a Cincinnati Reds fan, gets the most use out of the MLB.TV subscription because none of those games are blocked for Portland residents.
So two years ago, Moon downloaded VPN software onto her cable modem that allowed her to mask her location so that she can see Mariners games. The software essentially assigns a different location to IP addresses on her computers and the Roku television device.
Jordan used a similar tactic for the World Cup. It took him about 10 minutes to set up a VPN service that allowed him to set his location to the United Kingdom and pick up a live stream of the first World Cup match via England’s public television service ITV. “Setting up a VPN was pretty easy,” he said. And watching the World Cup was just one of the many programs he’s now able to get online without having to pay for cable service.
“I canceled my cable about three years ago, as I was never using it,” Jordan said. “I’m a big fan of mixed martial arts, so I almost caved in when the UFC paired up with Fox Sports 1, but Comcast wanted over $100 for a package that would include the channel, so I just find a stream for those events or prelims.”
The use of VPNs to watch sports programs do not violate copyright laws, according to John Bergmeyer, a staff attorney at Public Knowledge. But ESPN or other networks with distribution rights to the programs could determine that use of “geo-blocking” services like VPNs violate their terms of service, he said.