BBC iPlayer and the University VPN

[edit] Since writing this an iPlayer developer has passed on via informal channels that they’re using the Quova geolocation service. In this database part of our VPN address range was designated an ‘international proxy’ – while this may be regarded as true or not for restricted access VPN clients I simply wanted a decision, and so I’ve contacted Quova stating that users in that range are told their network will behave as if in Oxford – they appear to accept this so as of ~15th of January this issue may be fixed unless there’s also an additional system the BBC use to override this.

Note that I’m not arguing if the VPN range should or shouldn’t be able to use the iPlayer, I simply wanted to know a response from the BBC to my contact through their iPlayer support channel and wanted to give the users a definitive answer about iPlayer access without have to vaguely reverse engineer the way iPlayer works. There are more important things on the backbone network for our team to be working on than iPlayer access.

The BBC appear to have blocked the university VPN address range from iPlayer, you will get a message stating that content is not available for your region no matter where you were when connected to the VPN.

This was originally reported to our team in August 2010. We were asked to look at an issue with the BBC iPlayer service from central VPN service connections. The original user reports made quite a few claims but I’ll stick to what we were able to verify, since it seems there were some changes and maintenance at the iPlayer end affecting results at the time of the initial reports.

The initial reports suggested that all users of the VPN were affected but we were unable to reproduce the issue – it then transpired that the requestor was a university member who was abroad and that it was only for them that there was an issue. Hence at this point our interest waned and it was pointed out to the user that BBC policy is not to provide content to overseas users . It’s not an especially good/sane (legal?) use of our resources to try and get around the BBC content restrictions so we were not interested. If this had been the end of it, that would have been fine.

A few more queries followed however, with the occasional suggestion by requestors that it must be something ‘special’ about our VPN service we provide that is causing the problem, and so I contacted the BBC to clarify what the BBC position was, and asked for clarification on the technicalities to ensure what was seen was expected and not in fact the symptoms of a technical issue instead of the assumed intended restriction. As part of this request we provided our VPN address range, for which access is restricted to university members, as part of the technical information. What we were hoping for was a BBC statement which we’d pass onto the users (I seem to recall from memory that the BBC policy documentation at the time wasn’t quite as well explained as the current BBC link I’ve given in the paragraph above, but I could be wrong). In hindsight this was not such a good idea.

It now appears that although there was no email response, the VPN client address range we provided was added by the BBC to some form of iPlayer blacklist – but note that this is an educated guess based on the evidence as we have no response from the BBC nor do we have visibility in to the access control mechanism of the BBC iPlayer. It is now the state that all users of the university VPN service, whether inside or outside the UK are denied content by the iPlayer application with a message that content is not available in the persons region.

The knock on effect is that this also stops access to iPlayer for university members using the OWL campus wireless service.

The OWL campus wireless service (which pre-dates WPA technology in consumer devices) uses an unauthenticated/unencrypted network that (to simplify) has destination access restricted to the university VPN service and hence clients make encrypted VPN connections across the unencrypted network to the VPN server in order to provide ‘normal’ and secure network access. The eduroam wireless service also offered in the university is based on WPA enterprise and so needs no VPN connection, leaving it unaffected.

  1. Hence if you’re on campus using the wireless services, connect to eduroam rather than OWL wherever possible (there’s also other reasons to prefer the WPA based service but I don’t want to drift off topic). If your site only offers OWL, ask your local IT support if/when they are hoping to deploy eduroam – they will contact our team when they need assistance with doing this. The BBC have affected the service, it’s not something we have implemented, nor can we affect it so complaints should be directed to the BBC (feel free to link to this post).
  2. If you are outside the UK using the VPN – the BBC policy is not to provide service to you, write to the BBC if this annoys you.
  3. If you are inside the UK using our VPN for internet connectivity but not on wireless (which is an odd situation), then you’ll need to find a different mechanism for internet connectivity that doesn’t use our VPN.

My only comment to the BBC would be that the restriction that was initially in place worked fine – users abroad couldn’t access iPlayer but your new restriction is over the top.

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