Traditional linear broadcast TV (either over the air or via cable) as an entertainment medium is increasingly becoming anachronistic. Beyond the price gouging and inflexible bundling schemes that the cable company imposes, my other pet peeves are the inflexible program schedules, poor HD 16:9 format support and the delays in bringing newly released content from the States (like in Singapore where I live and other non-US markets). Some might argue that with the advent of cheap PVR set top boxes, the program scheduling issues goes away. But having used some of these PVR cable set top boxes, I have been less than thrilled by the Soviet era user interfaces that they sport and the indignities that a user needs to go through just to time-shift the crappy local cable programming.
So after having dabbled in building my own Home Theatre PCs (using PVR software like Showshifter, SageTV and Windows Media Center) to time-shift OTA and cable programming over the past 5 years, I decided that it is high time that I truly “cut the cord” and dump the local cable service, and venture into the brave new world of online streaming videos.
At a minimum, I wanted to be able to access US-based services like Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, CBS.com, TV.com, and many other countless free and paid content delivery services from the US, and also possibly the BBC iPlayer service from UK. Having done some research into these services, I realized that all of them were “geo-locked” in the sense that they will not stream content to IP Addresses beyond the designated territories (the territories being mostly the US).
The solution of course was to acquire an US based IP address, via either a US based Proxy or VPN service. Because most US based services use certain “Geo-locking” services that are able to sniff out proxy servers and reject them, I decided to go with a VPN service. I chose the VyprVPN service because of their excellent service, support and robust uptime.
The challenge to work on was how to configure my home networking setup. I wanted to ensure that only certain network destinations that require US IP addresses be routed through the US based VPN service. I wanted all other regular traffic to be routed through to my cable modem internet service provider’s local gateway because of the speed gain (VPN traffic can be slightly slower, with more hops and latency).
The final solution that I came up with called for two routers to get the setup working. I bought 2 used Linksys WRT54GL routers from ebay and replaced their stock firmware with the latest DD-WRT firmware (this WRT54G and DD-WRT makes for some of the most stable and eminently configurable consumer class router). I designated one of the routers as the primary router linked to the cable modem. This primary router will have a customized routing table to route all US based specific net destinations to the second router. I added all the US based server and CDN (content distribution network) IP addresses on to the routing table, to point to the second router as the default gateway (instead of using the primary router as the gateway). The second WRT54GL router, which I call the VPN router, has its built-in VPN client configured to use the VyprVpn service (with special scripts to do auto redials to ensure constant uptime). Any PCs or media devices on the home LAN trying to access Netflix, Hulu, Pandora or other US based media sites will have their traffic routed to the second router automatically from the primary router, and will then traverse the VPN link to the US to reach its final destination.
Because all the routing magic are taken care of at the router level, any of the 12 different devices in the house (Boxee box, Apple TV, iPhones, iPads, Macs, and PCs) do not need any special configuration at the client level. On the Boxee Box, accessing the Netflix app automatically logs in to the service and streams video seamlessly without any stutter. Likewise my kids can also watch Netflix on their iPhones, iPads or their iMacs anytime (using a single paid account subscription). I get to stream Pandora on my iPhone and PCs and have access to a vast library of free music. My kids can also browse Hulu to catch up older TV episodes. I have also enabled the VPN server on my Windows 7 based media PC on the LAN, so that I can access Netflix and other content at home remotely while I’m traveling.
So far our attempt to “cut the cord” and stop using local cable service for a US based streaming approach has been very successful. We have managed to cut our over SGD$60 dollar monthly bill to about SGD$20 per month (for the Netflix and VPN subscription). In return, we now have access to a vast library of content which were not accessible otherwise earlier due to geo lockout.