June 14, 2013

Alternative #2: VPN

Proxies are okay for getting around region blocks occasionally but they are far from ideal if you want permanent, reliable access to media streaming services from your PC -- plus they only work with applications that actually support proxies, like browsers. Virtual Private Networks are a safer bet and you can even find some free alternatives, albeit with some limitations when it comes to speed and bandwidth caps.
Basically a VPN creates a connection between your computer and a server in a host country, which will assign you an IP and route all Internet traffic through that connection. This means your actual IP will be hidden and to any site you visit it will look like the request originated in the host server country.
Most VPNs offer some level of encryption for added privacy and security and some offer a choice of server locations; so if you want to watch Hulu, for example, you can connect to a server in the US. Switch to a UK server and you can access BBC’s iPlayer. Others even advertise total privacy packages with servers in the Netherlands or safe P2P downloads through servers in Lithuania, Ukraine, Russia, Estonia. But I digress.
HotSpot Shield is arguably the most popular free VPN service; it requires downloading a special app and you’ll be able to stream US-based content in no time, but you’ll have to put up with ads while browsing and very often with slow connections. Also, services like Hulu have been known to actively block HotSpot Shield.

My preferred free alternative and the one I’d recommend to anyone just getting started with VPNs is called TunnelBear. It works with a standalone app on OS X or Windows and it’s extremely easy to use. There’s no configuration involved, just install it and sign up for an account. Within the TunnelBear interface you’ll be able to turn the VPN connection on or off with a single click and switch between US or UK servers just as easy.
The only caveat (there’s always one with free services) is that you are limited to 500MB of data per month. On the upside, there are no ads, and you can always upgrade to a paid account with unlimited bandwidth for $5 monthly or $50 for the whole year, which is actually quite competitive. TunnelBear uses 128-bit and 256-bit encryption for its free and paid services, respectively, and doesn’t log any of your web activities.
Other paid alternatives I’ve tried ranging in price from $5 - $10 a month include StrongVPN and BlackVPN. Both are reputable services with their own advantages and disadvantages. Be sure to read their logging and privacy policies -- TorrentFreak ran a survey that gives you the gist of it on these and several other VPN services. In any case, for the purpose of this article which is getting around geo-blocks, you shouldn’t be too concerned about it. No one’s coming after you for streaming an episode of Parks and Rec overseas.

 Setting up these paid VPN services is not hard but requires a little more effort. We won’t go into details as you’ll find specific instructions for the service you choose -- something like this: BlackVPN or StrongVPN.

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