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When Travelers Go Abroad, Online Video Services Don't Follow

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Imagine paying for a service that promises you can access it anywhere, at anytime, only to be told that you can’t access it at all. That’s the scenario that faces Americans abroad when it comes to watching content on their favorite over-the-top (OTT) service.

On a recent trip abroad with family, we carried an Apple TV in our carry-on luggage, to connect up to the TV in our rented European apartment. We hooked up the device, which we’d used many times in rural Tennessee to watch Netflix, and were able to use it to AirPlay a MacBook Air on to the screen. This was a good thing, since almost all the channels were in French, German, or Italian, and sometimes a bit of U.S. entertainment goes a long way toward alleviating homesickness or culture shock.

Once we got the Apple TV hooked up and updated the software to Apple’s most recent version, we were in for an unpleasant surprise: Netflix wasn’t available.

No matter, we still had an iPad and a laptop with us, both of which could be connected via AirPlay to the Apple TV. Both had also been used to access Netflix in the U.S. prior to the trip.

Yet, with both devices, we got a similar error when we tried to access Netflix.

The best error message? “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.”

It’s almost as if Netflix is saying anyone who lives in this particular part of Europe isn’t ready for prime time, and that traveling customers from the U.S.—who have paid to access the on-demand service for months or years on end—really should reconsider their travel plans and only travel to places deemed Netflix-worthy.

One might argue that it’s the premium-content licensing issues that keep Netflix from allowing content to be shown abroad, even for paying Netflix subscribers, but what’s quite surprising is that not even the Netflix-owned content is available to Netflix subscribers.

So it’s a choice Netflix is making to stiff its paying customers, a self-imposed limitation that is not (or not only) a licensing issue.

And it’s not only Netflix—we struck out with Hulu, Vudu, and Amazon Prime, though the latter at least showed us the menu, if not the actual shows.

I suggest there’s a better way, and it doesn’t involve tunneling or proxy IPs as a way to allow American expats to view content they’ve paid for: account-based geographic restrictions.

Cellphone companies know when you’re roaming, whether domestically or abroad, and can charge you accordingly, so OVP and OTT service providers can easily tell where the physical device attempting to view content is located.

For those who pay for a U.S.-based OTT service and then travel abroad, the account could be set to roaming, just as one can set up a credit card for travel abroad within a set period of time.

Given the frequency with which some of us travel, including the amount of downtime that goes with sitting in an airport or sleepless nights in a hotel waiting for jet lag to subside, it seems that Amazon, Netflix, and others would want to solve our travel weariness by offering up a bit of binge watching of OTT content.

Quite the opposite occurs, though, and it’s about time for Amazon, Netflix, and the like to get with the program, figuring out a way to end the 2015-era horror flick Abroad and Disconnected.

This article appears in the September 2015 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “Abroad and Disconnected.”

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