NOTE: The BBC iPlayer continues to work with multiple VPN providers. I last connected on Sunday, February 17, 2019 to watch Saturday and Sunday highlights of the fifth round of the FA Cup. I used one of CyberGhost‘s special BBC iPlayer VPN servers.
As recently as a year ago, watching the BBC iPlayer with a VPN was the most reliable way of accessing the service outside the UK. Today, things no longer seem to be that easy. In fact, the word on the street is that using a VPN for the iPlayer does not work period.
So is the game up? Are those of us outside the UK out of luck? The answer is not at all. Yes, there have been changes, and things have perhaps become a little more inconvenient. But, using a VPN to access the iPlayer is as doable as ever. I watch it on a nearly daily basis.
Why Do You Do It BBC?
It’s easy to see why the BBC decided to take action and clamp down on VPN usage. The iPlayer has become an amazing success for the company not only in the UK but also around the world. The problem is the iPlayer is a service meant to be used only by UK residents, individuals who pay that country’s mandatory TV License fees. All those “around the world” viewers were never supposed to happen.
Some data suggests an estimated 60 million people living outside the UK access the iPlayer with VPNs or other tools that bypass geo-blocking. That’s a whole lot of people, almost as many as live in the UK. So it is understandable why the BBC has actively started taking measures to stop those unauthorized users. Besides potential licensing issues, it also costs them a lot of extra money to maintain the iPlayer infrastructure.
How Do You Do It BBC?
So how does the BBC know you are accessing the iPlayer through a VPN? It all comes down to your IP address and probability. The iPlayer is meant to be used mostly from home and sometimes from a place of business. Anywhere a valid TV License exists. Most of those locations will have a single external IP, regardless of how many devices are connect to the internet.
Let’s assume a home situation with a family of four where everyone streams content off the iPlayer at the same time. That’s four connections from the same IP address talking to the iPlayer server for several hours each day. From the BBC’s point of view, that sounds entirely reasonable and is probably a fairly common usage pattern.
Now, what happens if you, I and a several hundred other people access the iPlayer using a VPN server’s IP (servers may have multiple IP addresses, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s assume a single one). It’s like we’re all roommates in a single house. It translates to hundreds of connections hitting the iPlayer server around the clock (since we all likely live in different time zones around the world).
Does that sound like a typical iPlayer usage pattern? Not at all. And you can bet that eventually, once enough time has passed for the BBC to gather sufficient data (they need to be careful not to ban valid users), our VPN IP address is getting blacklisted.
The good news is, VPN providers are well aware of how their IPs get banned by the BBC and other similar streaming services. Most (but not all) providers, once they know an IP is blocked, will simply toss it and replace it with a new one that works.
Considering how many VPN customers use their service to bypass geo-blocked content, this makes a lot of sense from a business perspective. The whole process becomes a giant game of whack a mole between the streaming services and the VPN vendors.
What does this back and forth fight between the BBC and the VPN providers mean for you and me? Two things. First, we need to use a VPN that replaces IPs once they’re blacklisted, which is not always the case. With the exception of PIA, all providers on my recommended VPN list do.
Second, some time can pass between when an IP address is banned and when a provider changes it. This could be anywhere from a few days to several weeks. So, a few “bad” ones will typically always kick around. When you establish a VPN connection, you may get unlucky and be assigned one of the duds. If that’s the case, disconnect and connect again. It may take a few tries, but you will find an IP that works (try different servers too).
For example, midway through writing this post I decided to take a break. I chose to watch a few things on, appropriately enough, the iPlayer. Using CyberGhost, I connected to one of their London servers. No luck. The dreaded “BBC iPlayer only works in the UK” message. I switched to a Manchester server and lo and behold, I’m streaming like its 2015.
In addition to getting a VPN provider that will replace its IP addresses, it’s also a good idea to find one with multiple UK servers. The more, the better. All providers on my list of the best UK VPNs fit the bill.
One other thing you can consider is getting a dedicated VPN IP address. For the iPlayer, that address should obviously be in the UK. Several providers offer this.
Yes, a dedicated IP costs a bit more. For example, PureVPN charges $1.99 per month for this service. But what it means is you’re no longer sharing one with hundreds of other people, only a select few (a VPN provider will likely give out the same IP to multiple dedicated IP customers). While not foolproof, this does make you look much more like a regular household or business (think hotel) and much harder for the BBC to catch and blacklist.
If you don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, it’s easy to get discouraged when you first find your VPN no longer works with the iPlayer. That’s what the BBC is hoping for, that enough people throw in the towel and move on. Yes, things are a little different than they were a few years ago. You need to be slightly more selective with your VPN provider choice. But, if you use the right one and understand how to use it, then watching the BBC iPlayer over a VPN works as well as ever.