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Streaming Options for Foreign Travelers Are Improving—Slowly

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I started my journey in streaming 2 decades ago with a list of “pain points” that I wanted to see solved. The number of items on that list has now dropped from about 20 to about 8. Since I knew I’d be headed to London for Streaming Forum 2018 in February, I was curious about whether one addition to the list—added when I was in Italy with my family in July 2015, and again when I was Turkey the next month—had improved in any way.

That issue, the ability to view Netflix or Amazon Prime Video content while abroad, was documented as a call to action in my Sept. 2015 column titled “When Travelers Go Abroad, Online Video Services Don’t Follow,” in which I highlighted the challenge of entertaining American teens that had grown up on DVDs and Netflix streaming. I noted in that column that I’d brought to Italy an Apple TV as a way to remain connected to “normal life” while exploring a new culture.

“[S]ince almost all the channels were in French, German, or Italian,” I wrote of the limited cable television selection in our Verbania-area rented apartment, “sometimes a bit of U.S. entertainment goes a long way toward alleviating homesickness or culture shock.”

Alas, it was not to be, as we continued to get errors with Netflix on our Apple TV, iPad, and MacBook. The error message, straight out of the 2015 pre-expansion era for Netflix, was a classic:

“Sorry, Netflix hasn’t come to this part of the world yet. If you need to access your account, please visit netflix.com/help for assistance.”

In Turkey, it was the same way with Amazon Prime Video as it had been with Netflix in Italy and Switzerland, although in Amazon’s case, we could at least see the show listings. Playing back content, though, wasn’t an option unless we used a VPN. I also found that Orange Is the New Black was being played as episodic television in Turkey, which meant Netflix was recouping cost on a Netflix-only production in markets where it did not currently offer on-demand streaming services.

In the 2015 article, I challenged companies like Amazon and Netflix to “get with the program, figuring out a way to end the 2015-era horror flick Abroad and Disconnected,” as a way to offer truly global viewing options for millions of expats who travel abroad each year for holidays or business.

My 2018 trip to London brought a delightful surprise: While waiting out the clutches of the “Beast from the East” snowstorm that gripped the south of England with record-breaking cold and snow, Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen and I tested both Amazon Prime Video and Netflix, along with two other services.

Amazon Prime offered a limited menu of content, mostly Amazon-produced content, under a banner of “Watch While Abroad,” and Netflix offered up its own content as well as U.K.-focused fare.

We also tried two other options: my own subscription to DirecTV Now and Eric’s Hulu subscription. Neither worked in the U.K., and DirecTV Now offered a cryptic “Error 30” message for its live-linear over-the-top (OTT) service.

While I can’t quite check “global OTT viewing” off my list, I can say that we’re getting there.

“There is an appetite within customers to have that original content,” said Jeff Webb, principal streaming architect at Sky, when asked during a Streaming Forum panel about watching Sky content in other parts of Europe that don’t have Sky service. “They don’t want to just watch the old content, which are the reruns provided by multiple OTT providers,” said Webb.

The challenge isn’t a technical one, added Ian Parr, director of TV and broadband infrastructure, BT. “We’ve all got relationships with the big CDNs, so it’s not a technical issue at all. The relationships allow us to enforce those rights wherever the client sits.”

Moderator Dom Robinson summed it up well: “I think the CEOs and lawyers need to catch up with the technical capabilities.”

Here’s hoping that I can check this one off the list by the end of 2018.

[This article appears in the April/May 2018 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "We’re Getting There."]

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