There are few things that move people like watching sports, and when fans can’t watch their favorite teams play, it can eat at their souls. A PCMag reader recently wrote to me, asking if it’s possible to use a VPN service to restore the live sports channels that were part of a no-longer-accessible cable package. The question has been edited for brevity.
The Master of Unblocking
In their message, the reader mentions that they wish to access the channels that were previously available to them. That presents a problem, and I do not think a VPN will help. As I understand it, cable boxes communicate directly with the cable providers. The provider enables or disables specific channels for use on your box. The issue isn’t that there is a geographic block, something a VPN could help you circumvent.
I mostly focus on privacy and security here at PCMag, but I know from our surveys that about 25 percent of readers use VPNs to access blocked streaming content online. Companies like Netflix sometimes offer different content depending on where customers live. The US might have shows that aren’t available in the UK, and vice versa.
VPNs are great for accessing content that is region-blocked—that is, content on the internet that can only be accessed by people living in specific parts of the world. Companies are able to screen out your location by looking at your IP address. When you use a VPN, your data is routed through different locations, which changes your public IP address. By selecting a VPN server in the region with the content you want to watch, you can make it appear as if you are in the area approved for viewing.
This works in theory, but using a VPN to access blocked content is a tricky thing. First, you have to find a VPN that works with the specific service you want to access, which is usually by process of elimination. Even after you find a service that does what you need, it might not continue to do so. Streaming companies actively work to block VPNs, so a service that works today may not work tomorrow.
If, however, you’ve found an online stream of the sports program you can no longer access, a VPN might help! Friends have told me that the MLB offers online streaming of baseball games for free, but only if you live outside the US. Those same friends have used VPNs to get around that restriction, by making it appear that they are in a location that can access those free MLB streams.
My colleague Ben Moore has spent quite some time looking at sports streaming services and tells me there are some unusual caveats that sports fans should keep in mind. Notably, he says that these services are subject to the same coverage blackouts as cable and that some broadcasts are restricted to certain regions or local markets depending on distribution rights. He tells me that only national sports broadcasts (for the most part) are available to everyone. Depending on what you want to watch, and where you are located, your best bet might be to skip streaming all together and, unfortunately, explore what cable packages are available.
Using a VPN With Your TV
While a VPN is probably the wrong tool for tackling our reader’s question, there are ways to use a VPN with a TV. You might want to spoof your location so the TV itself can accessing streaming content in other countries, or you may be very sensitive to the idea of an ISP or other third party monitoring your TV’s web traffic.
For this, you’ll need either a smart TV that can connect to your network and stream video directly via its own apps, or a connected streaming box such as a Roku or Apple TV.
One way is to try and run a VPN on your TV or streaming box directly. Some VPN services, such as Surfshark, offer VPN apps for these devices that can be installed through the official apps stores. Just download, enter your credentials, and you should—in theory—be online. I haven’t tested any of these apps so I’m hedging my bets as to whether they work.
Alternatively, you can install a VPN on your router, as our reader suggested. This provides VPN protection to all the devices on your network, and is especially useful for devices that can’t run VPNs on their own, such as a smart bulb or some other IoT device. It also lets you spoof the location of all your devices, including a connected smart TV.
Most VPNs provide instructions on how to set up a VPN on your router, or will outright sell you a router preconfigured to work with a particular VPN. However, I don’t recommend this approach for most people. Banks, streaming services, and other sites and services often block VPNs outright. If you encounter that, and the VPN is running on your router, toggling it on and off could be a pain. For ease of use, I prefer to simply run VPNs on individual devices, turning the services off when necessary.
One more note about VPNs and streaming: streaming from a computer to a Chromecast, or another streaming media device, isn’t possible with a VPN. That’s because these devices generally only work with other devices on the same Wi-Fi network. When the VPN is switched on, the data is encrypted and piped out of your network, meaning that you won’t be able to connect to a local streaming device. Some VPNs have advanced settings that allow access to LAN devices, but a general rule of thumb is that you’ll have to power down your VPN before you can cast content to your TV.
But Is It Moral?
Using a VPN to access blocked streaming content appears to be legal, but it is sometimes in violation of a company’s terms of service. That aside, I think it’s worth pondering whether or not doing so is moral. Now, I am extremely not a lawyer, so don’t rely on this as legal advice. However, I have spent most of my adult life thinking about the ways we consume media.
If you live in a place where content is blocked because of censorship, I believe it is entirely moral to use a VPN to watch it. That opinion is certainly a product of my upbringing, and I believe pretty strongly that art and commentary should be accessible to people that want it.
If the content you want cannot be accessed through normal, mainstream means, I also think it’s perfectly fine to hop on a VPN and watch a stream. More than a few times I’ve wanted to see a weird movie—usually an older, non-US title—that simply isn’t available for sale or streaming in the US. In these cases I have tried my best, and the capitalist system I live in has simply failed.
If the content you want is available, but it is of poor quality or for some other reason rendered unenjoyable, I think it’s moral to obtain a stream through alternate means. A great example is the Olympics which, in the US, are only available from one company and often heavily edited. A devoted gymnastics fan, for example, is poorly served by this coverage, and I don’t see anything wrong with them finding a means to view another stream that’s not available in the US. I’m told the CBC does a great job.
Now, if the content you want is available, is reasonably easy to obtain, and is of enjoyably quality, that’s when it becomes far shadier to stream via VPN. I’ve often found it to be a far bigger headache to avoid paying for something than simply ponying up the cash. Every dollar I spend is a minute saved fussing with VPN settings or trying to find a working stream.
For instance, there are several streaming services available that specialize in sports programming and a few of them actually cost less than a VPN subscription. (Though you ought to have a VPN subscription in any case.) There might not be ethical consumption under capitalism, but it will still feel pretty good to dissolve your cable subscription and embrace cord cutting.
A Free-ish Future
The conversation around region-specific video streaming reminds me a lot of the DRM fights of the early 2000s. Digital Rights Management was code that limited how media could be used or transferred. A song you bought on iTunes, for instance, would only play on specific machines authorized to play it. We’ve never gotten rid of DRM (see what happened with Microsoft’s eBook store), but it became less and less of an issue with the rise of cheap, accessible, digital music streaming.
Right now, some people at Netflix are working really hard to figure out how to keep people from using a VPN to watch shows they shouldn’t be able to access. That sounds exhausting. Perhaps companies should focus on making more content available at reasonable prices instead of playing a never-ending cat-and-mouse game with VPN companies.