Brits abroad and citizens of other countries may choose to use the marvel of the World Wide Web to access the BBC’s best programs as soon as they are available, rather than waiting for their local TV station to buy the programs and broadcast them. Additionally, accessing the original show through the iPlayer on the BBC’s website gets you the episode in English, so you don’t have to lip read through the dubbed local language version in your Tuscan villa or Spanish holiday home.
If you take your laptop or tablet on holiday with you, you are in for a nasty surprise – the BBC blocks access to iPlayer from outside the UK. So, what can you do? The solution is to install a VPN.
What is BBC iPlayer?
iPlayer is the BBC’s library of programs available on its website. When you access a program, you get to watch it in a media player embedded in the webpage. Don’t worry if you don’t want to squint at the tiny video panel in the page – with a single click you can get the media player to go full screen. Better yet, thanks to the advent of casting, you can send the output of the media player to your TV screen, and watch the program as though you had just switched over to the BBC at home.
All of the BBC’s channels contribute content to iPlayer – BBC1, BBC2, Three, and BBC Four. The latest episodes of the series currently airing on the channels in the UK are available on iPlayer. In addition, programs and series that have finished are available as box sets, so you can sit and watch an entire series all the way through.
What is the Block?
If you surf to BBC iPlayer from a location outside the UK, you are able to browse through the programs on offer. However, once you click on one of the programs to watch it, you will encounter the following message:
This is because the BBC website operates a geo-location lock on its content. Many TV channel websites around the world do the same thing. This is to stop people accessing TV in other countries, and make it worthwhile for TV stations to buy content from their counterparts around the globe.
How Does the Block Work?
When you access a website, your browser sends a request for a page. The server that it contacts returns a series of packets of codes, which the browser then reassembles into a webpage. The request for the content has to have a return address on it, otherwise the server would not know where to send those packets of codes.
Every computer on the internet has an address, which is called an IP address. This is a unique address, which works a little like a telephone number. The BBC iPlayer server can tell from the IP address which country the request for a page came from, because the first segment of an IP address is a country code.
The BBC’s server could quite easily just ignore all requests from outside the country. However, the site’s policy is to return just about all of the page, but not the code for the media player. Instead, a faded-out image of the desired show’s advert is shown, together with a message that iPlayer knows you are outside the UK.
Fool the BBC
If the BBC’s website will only send the media player to IP addresses in the UK, then the obvious solution is to change your computer’s IP address to a UK one. Ha! However, if you try to fool the server by sending someone else’s IP address, then the BBC will send all the code for the webpage to some other computer, and you won’t get anything.
This situation requires a mediator, and systems called virtual private networks (VPNs) can sort this problem out for you. A VPN acts as though you have a private network cable that runs from your overseas location all the way to the UK. The cable does not really exist – that’s why it’s called “virtual.” In reality, your communications with the UK traverse a series of networks, passing through routers.
The VPN is made private by completely encrypting all of each data packet that travels from your computer, and all of the packets that travel back. A data packet for the internet has a payload, which contains the content, and a header, which includes the source and destination IP addresses. When the header of the packet gets encrypted, no router is able to read it, and so can’t tell where to send it. Therefore, the entirely encrypted packet is carried in the payload of another packet.
When you sign up to a VPN, you get some software to download onto your computer. This includes an application, which you can access to control the VPN, and also networking software that handles all the behind-the-scenes work of the deception.
Each VPN service has a choice of servers around the world. To access BBC iPlayer, you should always select a VPN server in the UK. Once the VPN service is turned on, all of the internet traffic from your computer gets sent to the VPN.
The VPN software encrypts and packages each data packet leaving your computer and addresses it to the VPN server. When that packet arrives at the server, the VPN service strips off the outer packet and decrypts the original. It then transmits that packet to the destination written into the original header, but substitutes its own IP address as the origin of the packet. As the VPN server you selected is in the UK, when that request for content arrives at the BBC web server, it has a UK IP address on it as the origin.
The BBC server then sends the requested content to the VPN server. The VPN computer remembers that this request is actually meant for you, so it bundles up the data packets and puts your real address in the headers of the carrying packets. The packets are then transmitted over the internet to arrive at your computer. The VPN software on your computer unbundles the packets and sends them to your browser. Thus, you fool iPlayer’s geo-location lock and watch all the content you want.
Any Other Problems?
You might expect that having to encrypt, repackage, re-route, unpack and decrypt every little data packet for your connection would really slow down the transmission. There is a lot of work involved, but VPN computers are so fast that they can perform the whole operation in a matter of moments.
Not all VPNs are equal, however, and if you specifically want to stream video from BBC iPlayer while you are abroad, be sure to choose a VPN that is fast. The BBC is aware of the existence of VPNs and tries to block them. Therefore, you also need to make sure your VPN is clever enough to get around the web server’s detection methods.
There are free VPNs out there, but they are unlikely to be fast enough, or clever enough to get through the lock and transmit content quickly enough for streaming. Fortunately, all reputable VPN services offer a free trial or a money-back period, so you can try out a VPN to make sure it works properly for accessing BBC iPlayer. If it’s no good, just move on to another VPN.
There is another problem. The BBC is funded by a licence fee, and you are not allowed to watch its programs if you haven’t got a licence. Once your VPN gets you through the block, you will be presented with this message overlaying the media player.
Although the BBC states on its iPlayer FAQ page that it blocks VPNs, it doesn’t do a very good job of it. After taking the first screenshot in this report showing my access to the media player from outside the UK being blocked, I applied a VPN. When I tried to access the program again, I got it.
But, hang on, what about the question that asks whether you have a TV licence? The solution to this does not require complicated technology. Just lie.