A Virtual Private Network is a great tool that was originally developed to allow remote workers to access their employers IT systems as if they were sitting in their office. The idea is that through some clever trickery your PC actually appears, for all intents and purposes, to be connected to your office network directly even though you could be literally anywhere else in the world.
The idea was that remote workers would be able to access shared resources on the office network such as printers, email and file servers over an encrypted link and with no difference in user experience compared to when they were sat in the office connected to the network.
The principal behind a VPN is that it creates an encrypted tunnel across the Internet between your device and the VPN server in your office network. Any internet traffic from your device is then routed across this encrypted tunnel rather than going straight out on to the web. The upside to this is that it can be an incredibly secure way of accessing your companies resources with a negligible risk of information being hijacked along the way.
One of the side effects of this system is that, while connected to your VPN, any internet traffic that occurs on your devices is also encrypted through your VPN tunnel and then breaks out on to the internet from your VPN server site. What this means is that as far as the website or service you’re connected to is concerned, you’re located at the same site as your VPN server and not at the physical location of your device.
Seeing as VPNs links can occur from literally any place in the world it didn’t taken companies or consumers long to realise that this functionality of a VPN could be exploited to get around the geoblocking employed by most online streaming providers.
I’ll preface the rest of this article by stating that I do not endorse the use of a VPN tunnel to bypass the geoblocking of licensed and protected content. In fact I’ll point out that in most cases the use of a VPN to bypass these systems is prohibited by the terms and conditions of service and in some countries could be illegal.
With that out of the way what follows is an explanation of why your commercial VPN service sucks for streaming video.
1) Your providers connection speed is too low or too inconsistent
Standard definition video typically requires a stable connection of around 2mbps to stream comfortably. For HD this rises to around 5mbps and for UHD needs to be as high as 25mbps.
The simple fact is that most commercial VPN providers do not guarantee to consistently meet these speeds. Most only advertise their VPN service for the security improvements that using a VPN provides; encrypting all of the traffic over the link to the site of their VPN server.
In almost all cases the upload/download speeds of your VPN server will be less than the upload/download speeds offered by your ISP, so a bottleneck is created which restricts your download speed to the lowest common denominator: your VPN providers upload speed.
In the example above the blue pipes represent the bandwidth available at various points in the network, from your home router, across the internet to the VPN providers server and then back out on to the internet. As you can see, the bandwidth between the VPN provider and the internet is a lot smaller than offered by your provider, so the speed across the whole link (the orange tube) is drastically affected, even though your internet connection is capable of a lot more. You may be thinking that a VPN provider would obviously have a lot better connection than a standard domestic property, and you’d be right. But consider that as well as serving you the VPN server is also potentially serving hundreds of other clients simultaneously. Suddenly their super fast connection isn’t so impressive.
You can check this yourself; ensure that your VPN service is turned off and then run a speedtest at www.speedtest.net. Next, turn on your VPN service and run another speedtest. In almost all cases the speedtest result will be significantly slower when connected to your VPN.
2) Your VPN provider is blacklisted by streaming services
This is increasingly happening more and more. Providers such as Netflix, Amazon Video, iPlayer and ITVHub are very quickly working out which IP addresses are associated with VPN services and then blocking them from accessing their services.
This is very easy for them to achieve if you consider how commercial VPN systems work.
You and likely thousands of other people all pay a provider for a service and at any one time multiple people are connected to the VPN. Of those people a significant proportion will be using it to connect to a streaming service such as Netflix.
When your device connects to Netflix, they keep a record of the IP address from which your device connected to ensure it’s in an area that they provide subscriptions to (as IP addresses are regulated and allocated by geographical area).
This isn’t normally a problem, but when potentially hundreds of people are all connected to the same VPN server and all trying to use Netflix, Netflix spot an unusually high number of requests from that IP address and add it to a list of blocked IP’s called a blacklist.
Any future attempts to logon from that IP address are blocked by Netflix, and thus those connected to that VPN can no longer access Netflix’s service.
3) The type of VPN offered by your provider is just not suitable for streaming video
There are three major types of VPN protocol in use today; PPTP, OpenVPN and L2TP. I won’t bore you with the details on how each work but essentially each has its own advantages and disadvantages when it comes to things like speed, security and reliability.
PPTP is widely believed to be the least secure of all VPN systems, but it also often offers the least latency (that is, it has the least impact on the flow of information when compared to no VPN at all). Many believe that a PPTP tunnel, while less secure, is the best option for streaming services, as it has the least bottlenecking effect on data travelling through it.
But, the type of VPN service offered by your provider is entirely up to them, and your only option if it doesn’t suit your needs is to find another provider.
Put simply, there’s no quick fix for a bad VPN provider other than to try a different provider. Even if you do find a provider that works for you, the chances are it won’t be long before others find it too, and then when enough people do find it the service providers (Netflix and the like) will catch on quick and block those IPs from accessing their service.
All you can do, if you’re determined to use a commercial VPN to access blocked content, is duck and dive between VPN providers like Muhammed Ali and hope to stay ahead of the curve.
A much better solution, and one I’ll share details on how to achieve in an upcoming article, is to set up your own private VPN server where you control the type of tunnel in use and, crucially, only you use it thus preventing it from being tagged and blacklisted by service providers.