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How to Watch The Olympics Online (Without a Cable Subscription)

We’ve received a lot of frustrated emails from readers trying to watch the Olympic coverage online, but unable to do so. Read on as we show you how to enjoy the Olympics despite the monopoly on digital content in the U.S.

Image by Carmen Rodriguez.

The Problem

The wall readers are running into is a pretty simple one. NBC paid a huge sum of money to hold the exclusive U.S. domestic broadcast rights for the Olympics (over 4 billion dollars to maintain those broadcast rights through the 2020 Olympics). Despite the enormous potential for ad revenue generated by digital streaming, they’ve locked down their digital streams so that only  people who already have cable or satellite TV (and thus, access to their NBC Sports Network broadcasts) can access the streams. If you go to watch any videos on the official NBC streaming site, nbcolympics.com, you’ll see the splash screen above as soon as you select the video.

Now, obviously, if you have a cable/satellite package, you can jump through NBC’s annoying register-each-device-you-want-to-use hoops and just get on with watching the Olympic coverage. What about people without cable or satellite TV, though? You can’t easily bum a pass from your neighbor because it’s not like they get a watch-the-Olympics serial number, you actually need to login to their account and verify (maybe your neighbor won’t mind coming over to log you in, but very few people will just give you their credentials).

For the rest of us without super friendly or overly trusting neighbors, we need to get creative. Let’s look at ways you can watch the Olympics without picking up that cable subscription you ditched last year.

 The Solution

Barring getting a cable subscription or mooching off your friend’s cable subscription, there’s no good way to enjoy full NBC Olympic coverage in the U.S.; they’ve effectively locked down the entire process tightly enough that there aren’t any really effective workarounds short of torrenting/pirating the content after it has aired and been recorded by someone else (that’s all well and good if you want a copy forever, but it doesn’t help you when it comes to watching it now).

Rather than deal with NBC or support their absurd streaming-only-for-cable-customers model, the best way to watch the Olympics is to mask your identity and go, virtually, to another country to watch their coverage.

The two biggest coverage providers are the CBC and the BBC, Canada and Britain’s public broadcasting networks. You can find their excellent Olympic events coverage at olympics.cbc.ca and www.bbc.com/sport/winter-olympics/2014, respectively.

In order to enjoy the streams, however, you need to look the part. Don’t worry, there’s no love of curling or tea required, you simply need to masquerade behind a DNS server, proxy, or VPN that provides an appropriate IP address so the streaming the CBC and BBC streaming servers think you’re watching from within Canada or Britain.

First, we’ll save you some time. There are a lot of services being recommended for the purposes we just outlined above that simply don’t cut it. Popular IP-masking tool Hola, for example, might be good for watching a YouTube video here or there cross-border, but it is absolutely sagging under the weight of millions of people around the world trying to watch the Olympics.The quality of CBC/BBC streams through their proxy is on par with 2000-era Real Player content streamed over a 56k modem. In other words, entirely unwatchable unless you enjoy buffering every 5 seconds.

Proxmate suffers from the same lackluster speed (and doesn’t even support CBC access). TunnelBear is another service, not a browser extension but a whole-computer proxy tunnel, that is straining under the weight of the Olympic viewership: we’ve used the service in the past for various purposes with great success, but right now it’s getting absolutely hammered.

Obviously the free or freemium models aren’t cutting it in the face of a tidal wave of Olympic video streaming. As such, be prepared to pay (however small an amount) for a premium service to get your Olympic coverage fix.

The simplest solution is to pay for access to a DNS masking service; our favorite is Unblockus. The biggest benefit of using Unblockus is that there is no overhead introduced. It’s simply changing your public facing identity. By contrast, VPN services introduce the additional overhead of encryption/decryption and will slow down your connection. In light of the fact that we’re not trying to transfer sensitive files here, but just watch some streaming video, it makes sense to go with the fastest option.

You can try it out for a week free and then after that it’s $5 a month. If you only need it for the Olympics, that means you’re only out $5 for the whole experience. If you live somewhere that you can’t stream Netflix, many YouTube videos, or other content, that $5 a month is your golden ticket to streaming nirvana.

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Setup is dead simple. You can set it up at the router level so every device in your house can enjoy masked-IP streaming or you can set it up at the device level so that only the device you’re using (e.g. your Roku box or tablet) uses the service. Regardless of how you opt to do it, the Unblockus help section has very clear and concise instructions for every operating system and device you likely have around. Starting a free trial is as simple as singing up with your email address and following their dead simple instructions.

Once you have it connected and running, you can toggle (as seen in the screenshot above) the country you’re masquerading as a citizen of as simply as pulling down the drop down menu. Revisit the streaming service that previously locked you out, such as the CBC’s Olympic site, and you’re in:

Enjoy the events and, despite NBC’s bid to foil it, that international goodwill the Olympics is all about.

Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 02/13/14

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