Sunday, July 29, 2012

Accessing BBC Coverage from the U.S.

You live in the U.S., you don’t have a cable subscription but you want to watch the Olympics live? Here’s how to do it.

If you have a Mac, you can just follow these excellent instructions by Brad Gessler.

If you’re a Windows user, follow the instructions below, which I’ve adapted from Brad’s post after a good bit of tinkering. I’m also including some details that he left out.

  1. Brad writes1: “Signup up for a Linode account. After you enter your credit card information and select a Linode server, you’ll be asked where you’d like to boot the server. It’s important that you select London, UK during this step so that you get an IP address from inside of London.” Note that the $20 (least-expensive) server option should be plenty for your needs.
  2. When Linode asks which distribution you’d like to use, leave it at the default (Debian). You can also follow all the defaults for the other setup settings (disk space, swap, etc.). After configuration and setup are complete, follow the steps on the web interface to boot your server up.
  3. Download PuTTY (just download the putty.exe file listed first). This is the program you will use to connect to your Linode server in London.
  4. Configure PuTTY:
    • Main PuTTY screen: Under Host Name enter the IP address of your server, leave Connection type as SSH.
    • In the tree view at left, click ConnectionData. In the auto-login username field, enter the text root
    • In the tree view at left, click ConnectionSSH. Make sure enable compression is checked.
    • In the tree view at left, click ConnectionSSHTunnels. Under Source port, type 8080. Select the Dynamic option and leave the other settings as default, then click Add.
    • Return to the main PuTTY screen by clicking Session in the tree view at left. Type a name under Saved Sessions and click Save (so you won’t have to go through this whole rigamarole every time).
  5. Set up your proxy.
    • If you use IE or Chrome, configure this by going to Network and Sharing Center, and clicking Internet Options. Go to Connections tab, click LAN Settings button. Make sure Use a proxy server for your LAN is checked, and click the “Advanced” button. Enter next to the “Socks” field, and enter 8080 for the port. Leave the other fields blank as shown (HTTP, Secure, and FTP).
    • If you use Firefox, go to “Connection Settings”, select “Manual proxy configuration” and follow the same procedure, entering next to the “Socks host” field, and 8080 for the port, and ensure the other fields are blank.

Now every thing is set up.

Whenever you want to watch Olympics on BBC:

  1. Make sure the proxy is turned on as in step 5 above — these settings will be saved from last time, all you have to do is turn it on again.
  2. Open PuTTY, double-click on your saved session, and enter your password when prompted. You can minimize the terminal window once you’re sure you’ve logged in.
  3. Browse to to watch the Olympics live, or go to to pick and watch specific events.

When you’re done: Tunneling all your web traffic through a London server will make the rest of your browsing slower (and waste your Linode account’s bandwidth) so you should close PuTTY and turn off the proxy server setting from step 5 above when you’re not watching the Olympics.

Thanks to @mja for the original tip about Brad’s post, and the one about where to go directly to watch specific events.

Other approaches

I did attempt to use a VPN service to do essentially the same thing, but it was far too slow.

Update, July 30 2012:

  • If you use Chrome or Firefox, installing a “proxy switcher” extension for your browser will make between enabling and disabling the proxy setting much easier. Use Proxy Switchy for Chrome, or QuickProxy for Firefox.
  • A couple more good articles about this issue have popped up:
    • A post by Colin Nederkoorn, in which he initially advocates the VPN method, but also mentions the Unblock Us service. He’s not sure how it works (and neither am I) but he says it works great.
    • Dan Parsons advocates setting up OpenVPN on your Linode server, but I haven’t seen any reason why one should go to the additional step of installing OpenVPN when a simple SOCKS proxy seems to work fine.

  1. Full disclosure: I’ve copied the Linode signup link from Brad’s original post, which means it still includes Brad’s referral code. I thought this was fair since he was the one who first posted the basic solution. In his post he expresses a wish to find some way to use his referral code to donate to the EFF; I’ll keep an eye out, and if he finds a way to do that I’ll update this post’s link as well. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

How To Get Inexpensive Data Roaming For International Travel on Verizon

Update, Sep 17 2012: Also read this excellent article: Which iPhone 5 for a Global Traveller?

If you’re a U.S. Verizon customer with a smartphone, here’s the lowdown on keeping data roaming charges to a minimum for any trips outside the country.

Keep in mind, it’s not uncommon for Verizon to alter the options they offer. If this article hasn’t been updated in more than 6 months1, things may have changed; in that case, look around further online or call customer service and ask them how best to handle it.

Be sure to leave a comment with your findings!

The penny-pincher method (for trips of less than three weeks)

My wife is from Canada and we do this regularly during our visits to family there.

The way Verizon charges for data outside the U.S. is (currently) very simple: They charge for global data in chunks: $25 gets you a somewhat-measly 100MB. You can’t pay in any smaller increments.

Here’s what to do. Call customer service ahead of time2, and ask them to add one 100mb block of Global Data, but only for the days you’ll be outside the US. Give them the days you want it to go on and off your account (i.e., the days that you’ll be crossing the border). This will pro-rate the cost by the number of days you are on the plan, but it will also pro-rate the amount of data you get.

For example, supposing you’ll be out of the country for 11 days. Here’s how the costs for this method would work out (for each line, remember):

  • Cost: ($25 / 31) x 11 = $8.87
  • Data: (100MB / 31) x 11 = 35MB (round down to nearest MB)

Now (in this example) you’re only paying $9 extra per phone instead of $25. On a two-phone account, that would be a savings of $31.

The trick is staying under that low data ceiling (35MB in this example). If you use more than the chunk of prorated data you’ve already paid for, you’ll automatically get an additional 100MB — and charged the additional $25 as well, meaning you’ll probably pay more than you needed to3.

If you’re going to be out of the country for more than 20 days, the savings from this method become too small to be worth the hassle; you might as well just get the 100MB.

Either way, here’s how to make sure you don’t use up your “cheap” data:

  • Save your data usage for when you’re at a wifi hotspot (any data you use over wifi doesn’t count against you). This includes websites, email, Instagram, Facebook, etc. — pretty much app that communicates in any way. Some games don’t use data, but many do. Light usage of these things is ok, but the more you can save for wifi, the more likely you won’t break your data cap.
  • Don’t watch videos when not on wifi (Netflix, YouTube, Vimeo, etc.)
  • Don’t stream any music when not on wifi (Spotify, Pandora, iCloud, Amazon, etc.)
  • If you’ll need maps during the day, look them up ahead of time while on wifi, making sure to zoom in and out to download the tiles at various zoom levels
  • (For iPhone users) Turn off Push for email — instead set it to Fetch Hourly (or Fetch Manually).
    Go to SettingsMail, Contacts, CalendarsFetch New Data, turn off the Push option and set the frequency to Hourly or Manually.

What about the inconvenient and totally free method?

Depending on your phone, it’s possible that you may be able to avoid any extra overseas data charges altogether by turning off cellular data.

When your phone is connected to a network of any kind, it is constantly “sipping” data. True, it’s a miniscule amount, but as soon as it sips even one kilobyte while you’re out of the country, you get that $25 charge for a block of 100MB of roaming data.

On an iPhone, you need to turn off cellular data under SettingsGeneralNetwork. (Turning off “Data Roaming” will not work — it’s notoriously unreliable.) Another option, if you want to avoid voice roaming charges as well, is to turn on Airplane Mode and then re-enable WiFi. Remember you can’t place or take any cellular calls in Airplane Mode, but you could use Skype or FaceTime to make calls while connected to WiFi.

The catch with this method is that it can never actually eliminate your risk. Unforeseen circumstances can very easily require you to grab an email or place a call when you’re not near wifi, and even if it’s technically possible to change your phone’s settings back and forth in just the right ways, you always risk slipping up even for a second and incurring that $25 charge. Personally I’d much rather be realistic and plan ahead so I can be flexible without breaking the bank. For short trips especially, I really don’t believe it’s worth the mental hassle, unless you want to take the challenge as sort of a game with yourself. Shoot, if you can prove you did it, I’ll personally send you a $10 Starbucks gift card.4

What if I’ll be out of the country for more than three weeks?

Then you really need to read this article: World travel with the unlocked US Verizon iPhone 4S — check out the comments as well.

  1. As I said, I have family in Canada so I shouldn’t have a problem keeping this post updated with any changes I encounter. 

  2. From your Verizon phone, dial 611, or dial (800) 922-0204. Press 0 at the menu to just get right to a live person. You’ll be asked to state your reason for calling and told about higher-than-normal wait times, but this is just to deter you into trying the website instead; the wait usually isn’t very long. 

  3. Supposing you did use up your “small” chunk and got hit with an additional 100MB chunk, but your total roaming data for the month was still under 100MB, you should be able to call customer service and at least get credited for the “small” chunk. I’ve had to do this once, with no problems. 

  4. Here’s the rules: No Purchase Necessary. There’s only one prize, a $10 Starbucks gift card given away by random drawing. To enter the drawing you must blog or tweet something positive about this blog (referencing my Twitter account @joeld) and provide me privately with proof that 1) you’re a paying U.S. Verizon customer in good standing with a smartphone data plan as part of your regular account, 2) that you incurred $0.00 in data roaming charges during any given billing period, and 3) that you personally were out of the country with your smartphone ( powered on ) for at least two days during the billing period in question. The ideal way to satisfy these requirements would be a copy of your driver’s license, a copy of your Verizon bill, and a photo of you holding your powered-on smartphone open to an information screen showing that phone’s own number, and clearly showing an identifiable non-USA landmark in the background. The photo should be signed and dated by the person who took it (not you), along with their contact info. The drawing will take place within 1 week of the first qualifying entry. Good luck! :-D