Is the BBC costing Brits a fortune when they go on holiday?

I’ve recently come back from my sabbatical and you’ll be unsurprised to hear that I was abroad for part of it – and that was during the Olympics.

As an Olympics lover and more specifically an athletics fan geek (to show off – I recently fulfilled a lifelong ambition of infield presenting at the London Anniversary Games), I was addicted to the coverage while abroad. Poor Mrs MSE had to spend dinner time out while I had my headphones on, glued to the coverage via my phone.

However, when I tried to watch the BBC via Wi-Fi I couldn’t watch anything – it was blocked. When I tried to listen to BBC Radio 5 Live I got a message saying “due to rights restrictions this show isn’t available” (but I could listen to non-sport programmes on the station).

What surprised me though was if I listened or watched via my UK mobile phone roaming signal, there was no block – everything was available. I checked this on another phone on another network and it was the same (so I presume this is common, though do let me know if it’s different for you).

Therefore I can only guess that what is happening here is the UK IP address (like an internet location finder) on a mobile-phone signal still counts as a UK signal while abroad. However the overseas Wi-Fi is, by definition, a foreign signal.

This is a perverse result

While Wi-Fi abroad has a better connection and is dirt cheap or often free, roaming is relatively expensive within the European Union and extortionately expensive outside the European Union.

For example, in the States on Vodafone you could pay £600 for a paltry 200MB of data (just about enough to watch around one hour of TV in standard definition, or SD). But within Europe, bundles are available to make data relatively cheap.

Typical cost of streaming an hour of SD TV on big four networks
Vodafone (1)
Three EE
Standard Prepaid bolt-on Standard Prepaid bolt-on Standard ‘Feel At Home’ tariff Standard (4) Prepaid bolt-on
Europe £8.60 £1.99/day £9.20 £3/day £7.80 £0 N/A £3/day
America £120 (2) £4.99/day £600 (2) £5/day £6.60 (3) £0 N/A £14/day
India £120 (2) N/A £600 (2) £5/day £600 (3) N/A N/A £80/day
(1) Newer contracts may have roaming included. (2) Costs here are capped, so you’d need to give consent to run up a bill. (3) The standard charge will apply to countries not included in the Feel At Home tariff. (4) You can’t access the internet abroad unless you buy a prepaid bolt-on.

The BBC could fix this

On 1 September the TV licence rules changed. Now to watch BBC iPlayer, whether live or catch-up, you must have a TV licence (it used to be only live TV). So why not make this a log-in service, then the millions of Brits who go abroad each year and want to get their TV online, having paid their licence, will be able to do so?

Of course there will be the issue of broadcast rights for the programmes that the BBC don’t own (inc sport), but then they could be blocked or better still it could negotiate a closed user group deal for such programmes for those who are licence holders.

I’m pleased to say, to an extent, the BBC has already declared it’s looking at this: “We are interested in being able to allow UK licence-fee payers to access BBC iPlayer while they are on holiday in the EU. The BBC is still looking at the technical and legal implications of doing this and it will be dependent on what legislation comes into effect in the future.”

Other channels could follow suit too, though it’s trickier there. For example, with ITV, while you need a TV licence to watch its programmes live whether via TV or computer, if you’re watching only catch-up on the ITV Hub, it doesn’t need a licence.

Of course there is a way round the rules already

I am sure some people will be going “you can watch programmes abroad if you go via a VPN (virtual private network)”, via sites or apps such as TunnelBear or Hola.

They route your foreign Wi-Fi to a UK Wi-Fi so it looks like you are in the UK, and the licensed sites are unblocked. It is also how some people in the UK get to watch US Netflix by having a VPN that sets them up to be there.

However, VPNs are a legal grey area. Certainly when I’ve checked in the past, both the BBC and ITV say that you should not be using them, and possibly it’s breach of contract, though whether it’s actually against the law to do so or not is murky water.

Simply allowing a log-in for licence-fee payers would be much easier.

Let me know your experiences and what you think, via the discussion below.