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Watching The Olympics Online: Fans Find Ways Around NBC's Control

Jamaica's Usain Bolt gestures to a camera after running in an Olympic 100-meter semifinal. There's no telling when Americans might have seen his actions, as NBC tape-delays top events. Online, fans are finding ways around the network's strategy.
Sergey Ponomarev
Jamaica's Usain Bolt gestures to a camera after running in an Olympic 100-meter semifinal. There's no telling when Americans might have seen his actions, as NBC tape-delays top events. Online, fans are finding ways around the network's strategy.

When we posted about the apps and streaming options NBC and others offer for the London 2012 Games, many readers responded that as non-TV subscribers, they were cut out of the plan. Many added that they aren't scofflaws — they're people who watch broadcast television, and occasionally pay for cable shows or movies via Netflix or iTunes.

Essentially, NBC, the U.S. rights holder, has been streaming events live on their website — but the Comcast-owned network only provides full access to folks who already pay for cable or satellite TV service.

As a result, many fans in the U.S. have been frustrated in their attempts to watch live events from the Summer Olympics — NPR's Linda Holmes wrote eloquently about that situation earlier today, over at the Monkey See blog.

The would-be viewers' anger at NBC seems to be based on more than the usual "this is the Internet, everything should be free" perspective.

Many people now watch video on screens that aren't televisions — and from sources that aren't cable companies. And they can be forgiven for thinking that when they do that, they're moving toward the future — unfettered by the ties that used to bind media's content and delivery systems together.

The good news for those viewers is that the future is built with technology — and in this case, technology can help them watch what they want to watch, when they want to watch it. And they're taking advantage of it, as a recent feature on Yahoo showed.

I tested one solution Saturday, when I attempted to watch the BBC's live streaming of the Olympics. And a few minutes later, I was doing just that: live streaming video from London's Olympic Stadium. There are several ways to do what I did — and fans of the Olympics are using them.

Most controls on Olympic material are tied to Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, the numerical system that's tied to geography and enables NBC, the BBC and others to divvy up who gets to serve content to whom.

The IP system is the address book of the Internet — and that means it's also pretty easy to fake out. To do it, you just need to change, or forward, your address. There are two common way of doing that: pay a small fee to set up a Virtual Private Network, or use a free, and potentially risky, IP proxy.

Sites that offer VPNs have long thrived on the expat market, catering to NFL fans who live in Europe, for instance. At least one such service has reportedly seen a "huge spike" in subscriptions, thanks to the London Games.

The companies often charge a fee of around $5 to $15 a month.

Others are downloading apps for their web browser, punching in a British server's address, and pointing it at the website of an official Olympic channel that's not NBC — often, the BBC. Canada's CTV is another option; both offer a wealth of free, live video. Such extensions are readily available for two of the most popular browsers: Chrome and Firefox.

To test this out, I tried Foxy Proxy, which some 457,000 raters have collectively given 4 stars. That, for me, clears the "wisdom of crowds" bar. It was quick to download. Then I restarted Firefox — which now had a little icon to the right of my browser's URL address window.

I was already halfway done. Then I had to find a proxy address — which looks a bit like a long phone number, with its four groups of digits separated by periods. It is followed by the port number, which is usually 2-4 digits.

And that's where the risk comes in. Using a proxy address instead of your real address presents a threat. It's as if you're having your mail sent to a different address, and then forwarded to your actual home. It is definitively NOT secure.

To lessen that risk, I set up the proxy on Firefox, which I don't normally use. When I did this, I made a mental promise to myself that I'd only use Firefox to view Olympic video for this experiment. I would not, for instance, use it log into webmail and send my wife a note with all our bank IDs and passwords in it, along with a reminder of what our Social Security numbers are. After my test was over, I deleted the settings, and the browser extension itself.

Another method is to use Tor, an anonymous web access network that was created in part to defeat censorship and in part to protect privacy. Tor has its own browser, making it even easier to keep your Olympic viewing segregated from your private affairs.

There are tutorials online about how to configure Tor to watch the BBC. It's a little like using a proxy, in that it's free, and requires you to enter a numerical IP address and port. But it seems a bit safer to use than a random address found on the Internet.

The legality of these various methods is not absolutely clear. Certainly, the terms of use on any site that streams live video — such as the BBC — make it plain that they don't want folks who aren't in the UK to use the service. But sports fans who are desperate to see an event will evidently do desperate things.

Consider a quote from the Yahoo article cited above, in which Tara Jenson of Minneapolis says, "NBC is run by 90-year-old guys who don't understand. Could you see how much money you would be making by streaming this? I would pay up to $100 for a straight streaming package."

From what I've seen, the folks who are upset and frustrated at missing Olympic events aren't criminals, and they don't want to embark on a new life of piracy. Most of all, they want something the Internet promises — and should deliver — to everyone: equality, and options.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.