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.
For 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.
The legality of these workarounds isn’t clear yet. But consumers, so frustrated with their cable television providers, are flocking to the new services anyway, especially for live sports--from World Cup to Major League Baseball games.
“The ridiculously high frustration that cable customers experience puts cable providers at greater risk because what has historically kept people from leaving subscriptions is not keeping them there anymore,” said Steve Beck, cofounder of consulting firm cg42. His firm recently conducted a poll of 3,000 cable television subscribers that showed only 20 percent of users said they would stay because of exclusive rights to live sports and other valuable programming.
“The world is changing and there is more available online through various means,” Beck said.
Evidence of a business around cable cord cutters has been abundant with the World Cup games beginning this week.
"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.
Technology consulting firms and analysts say it is hard to estimate how many people use virtual private networks and other workarounds to get online programming, dozens of firms offer the services.
But scores of technology and sports forums offer step-by-step guides to setting up such virtual private networks, or VPNs, that mask locations indicated in a device’s IP address.
The VPNs can be created by a simple software download can mask or assign a different location attached to the code known as an IP address for every device. The process is known as geo-blocking and has 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.
“All it takes in a little tech nerdery and you’re ready to go,” said Ray Terrell, a baseball and soccer fan who has used a VPN service from his Portland home to get live sports games.
Others use the online service Aereo, which uses thousands of individually-assigned antennas to capture live television to stream onto the devices of its subscribers. Television broadcasters are battling to shut down the service, arguing to the Supreme Court that Aereo violates copyright law by lifting its programs off airwaves without paying licenisng fees.
Analysts say software that allows users to hide their location could violate the terms of service of streaming video providers.
“There are legal ramifications in that you are receiving a broadcast that you are technically not licensed to receive,” said Andrew Goldstein, an intellectual property attorney and partner at the Chicago law firm Freeborn & Peters.
But as seen in the music industry, it’s hard to enforce laws that protect against illegal streaming or downloads of content.
“Practically speaking, you have to catch [the users] first of all. And even if you do that what are you going to do? Sue the mother in Minneapolis who downloaded eight songs illegally to set an example? That didn’t work well for the music industry,” said Goldstein.
For MLB.TV subscribers, the ability to see live games online is handicapped by blackout restrictions for local games. Sarah Moon, a Portland, Ore., 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 Britain's commercial television network 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."
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly described ITV as England's public television service. It is a commercial TV network in Britain. This version has been corrected.
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