Published on August 31, 2012
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Colin Nederkoorn had never even plugged the cable cord into on his HD TV until his girlfriend urged him to try to tune in some Olympics a few weeks ago. He plugged it into the wall of his New York City apartment and couldn’t get anything better than Telemundo.
That led him to the NBC website, which asked him to enter a cable subscription ID.
“This is stupid, that doesn’t seem right,” he remembered thinking then. “They should be streaming it live on the internet. It’s 2012.”
He used to live in the United Kingdom and knew the BBC would be all over the games, streaming them live and commercial free.
“I knew that if the BBC was covering it, it was going to be good coverage,” said Nederkoorn, co-founder and CEO of the email automation company Customer.io.
Viewers Unlock Coverage
But the BBC streams are region-locked, meaning you can’t watch them outside the UK. That’s when he thought about trying a virtual private network, or VPN, which is a way to connect directly and securely with another computer, in this case a router hub in the UK. For $15 a month, he was able to get all the Olympics streams he could handle.
“They had phenomenal coverage, something like 24 channels, 24 live feeds of whatever event was being filmed you could watch it,” he said. “It was a pretty amazing experience to be able to watch the Olympics like that.”
VPN technology has long been used for corporate intra-office communications and others who share secure information and protect connections. But it was NBC’s botched broadcasting of the Olympics (in which tape delayed results in prime time were almost comically late news) that caused many people to discover VPN for the first time. And the Olympics potentially opened up a big future for VPN, which has the power to both flatten the world and help some users get around government censorship.
Opening the Web
In China, for instance, internet users have already taken to using VPN to skirt the country’s harsh internet censorship. It allows users to bypass the censors and go on pages like Twitter or Facebook while appearing to be browsing from another country.
In Canada and other parts of the world, internet users employee VPN to get around location geographical barriers on streaming services such as Hulu and Netflix. That upsets TV and film studios, who prefer to control the dates their titles are released internationally, but Nederkoorn said he sees VPN as helping to break down arbitrary boundaries.
“My philosophy on that kind of thing is: Companies are there to give me what I want, how I want it, when I want it. That’s kind of the trend. That’s the way it’s going,” he said. “If companies are giving someone else what you want when you want it, people are going to do that until everything becomes standardised.”
Facilitating Safe Surfing
Of course, not all the growth of VPN use is connected to entertainment. It’s gaining popularity as a security tool, especially as shared networks, people working on laptops in coffee shops and other mobile devices increase concerns about privacy and digital snooping. David Gorodyansky, CEO and co-founder of VPN provider AnchorFree, said he sees it as an extension of anti-virus software.
“The evolution now has gone beyond something used by tech-savvy people,” he said. “It’s gone to something used by the average consumer looking to get online.”
AnchorFree, which provides both laptop and mobile VPN access, has seen its traffic grow 100 percent year over year, with some 12 million unique users who connect at least once a month, and 30 million who connect once a quarter.
With the pitch that VPN can make every page you browse as secure as your banking site, the company just raised a $52 million round of financing from Goldman Sachs.
Gorodyansky hopes VPN is going to become nothing short of standard software.
“It’s going to basically become the norm of how the users browse the web,” he said. “We want to be … something every user turns on before they open their browsers.”
But the popularity of the service during the Olympics showed that, much like how the internet and Twitter broke down barriers from information spreading, consumers will no longer wait for access to things they know are out there.
“Geographical borders don’t really mean anything, especially on the internet,” Nederkoorn said. “With live events as well, movie releases, TV airings; once it happens, you can’t really control how people choose to consume it. If you put restrictions in place, people will find ways around it.”
Flickr images from users Duncan Rawlinson and Wesley Fryer
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