2013-02-10

Getting Hulu Plus in Canada

In a few of my earlier postings I mentioned that we've been using Hulu Plus to help fill the void after cancelling our Bell satellite service in the spring of 2012.

For those unfamiliar with Hulu, it's an American streaming service that began in 2008 with backing from ABC, Fox, and NBC. It was originally free and allowed US-based customers to view recent TV shows via their web browser - similar to what you get in Canada from watch.ctv.ca, www.globaltv.com/video/, and so on for the other networks. The service was supported by advertising and only worked with a web browser. In 2010 they added a paid version called Hulu Plus at $7.99/month that reduced or eliminated the advertising (depending on the show) and added viewing apps for popular streaming devices such as the PlayStation 3, XBox 360, Apple TV, Roku, WD TV, smart TVs, and some BluRay players. The free version still exists but it's web-browser only, and just the last few episodes of shows are available rather than entire seasons.

The catch for those living outside the US is that the service is restricted to US customers, so if you're Canadian and you missed last night's episode of The Office, you'd have to watch it on your web browser via Global TV's site. If you could somehow get Hulu Plus to work in Canada you could watch it on your TV via your favourite streaming device, or even on your smartphone!

Read on to find out how to make it happen.

Getting around Geo-Blocking

The secret to watching content like Hulu Plus that is restricted to a certain geographic region is to utilize one of a few Internet technologies that change where you appear to be located and thus "trick" the service into giving you access. In the telephone world the equivalent would be to use a calling card service based in another country - you call the service access number and then tell them the number you want them to dial. The person you call doesn't see your home's phone number on their caller ID, they see the number of the calling card service.

In the Internet streaming world, companies that geo-block their content use the Internet address of the web browser or device connecting to them to determine if it's OK for that device to receive their content. The main reason for geo-blocking is that content is typically licensed for use in a specific geographic region - why license one company to stream "The Office" worldwide when you can sell the same thing many times over in different parts of the world?

The good news is that there are a few different ways to get around most of the geo-blocking. I went into some detail on the technology involved in my post about watching sports like MLB and NHL without having every game you're interested in blacked out. There are several companies that provide a service that will get around geo-blocked content restrictions. When I'm away from home I use a VPN service from a company called VPN Authority that costs $5.30-$7.50/month depending on the term you select. For my home network I use a Smart DNS service called Unblock-US; it costs $4.99/month and you'll find a link to sign up for a free one-week trial of their service at the top right of this blog page. I can't easily walk you through the setup for Unblock-US because it's highly dependent on your Internet router and/or the device you use for streaming, but if you visit their web site you'll find setup instructions for the most common devices. Getting their service working is quite simple, and for accessing Hulu Plus, it's probably the easiest step, so don't be afraid to give their one week free trial a test run.

The other big benefit of subscribing to VPN Authority or Unblock-US is that they open up a lot of other services as well. If you subscribe to Netflix for example, you can switch back and forth between having access to the Canadian Netflix catalogue of TV shows & movies and the (much larger) US catalogue.


Geo-blocked Payments

Once you have a service like Unblock-US working, the next hurdle you'll face is being able to sign up for Hulu Plus. You would think that would be trivial, but in the case of Hulu, they limit your payment methods to American PayPal accounts, or credit cards issued by a US bank. The vast majority of us in the Great White North don't have either of those and can't easily get them. In the post-9/11 world, getting a credit card or opening a US bank account requires a US social security number or a taxpayer identification number.

This isn't a problem for a service like Netflix that sells to Canadians. You can subscribe to Netflix with a Canadian address and credit card, and then when you configure your Internet router to use Unblock-US you instantly get access to the worldwide content on Netflix. Other US-only services like Wal*Mart's VUDU pay-per-view streaming service have similar payment restrictions that make it difficult for Canadians to subscribe and pay for the service. Given that Unblock-US is in the business of helping people access these services from all over the world, they often have tips on how to pay for them, although unfortunately the information is sometimes out of date because the various services have revised the way they process payments. I'd like to see Unblock-US maintain a list of the known-good methods of payment for each of the services they support and delete old methods that no longer work. When you search the support section of their web site you often find several suggestions and it's hard to figure out which of them are known to work right now.

For Hulu Plus there's a payment technique that works for most Canadians. As Brad Goodman would say: "There's no trick to it, it's just a simple trick". You can get the full details from the Unblock-US support site, but the gist of it is that you provide Hulu with an American address that is similar to the Canadian address associated with your credit card. If done correctly, the address information that Hulu sends to your credit card company will pass their validation checks. This works for most of the people I know who've tried it; in the odd case where it doesn't work, your alternative is to buy a (non-reloadable) prepaid credit card that can be registered to a US address. Some people have had success with prepaid VISA cards bought in Canada, but to be 100% certain, I recommend getting a card from this site: http://www.buyfrompowerseller.com/. They buy pre-paid cards in the US that are known to work and they email you the card number. Naturally you pay a premium for their service - a US$100 VISA card costs you US$125 and you take an even bigger percentage "hit" for smaller denominations. Personally I like their $200 "All in One" card since I "only" take a 17.5% hit on the $235 charge and it works with pretty much anything.

Don't expect to find any way to make these cards re-loadable; once the balance is gone the card is burned and you'll need to buy another one. Re-loadable cards in the US have to play by the same rules as regular credit cards, meaning you need a US address and SSN/tax# to get one.

I was able to use the pre-paid US VISA card to create an American PayPal account, so that opens up some possibilities going forward. Some services (Hulu Plus for example) allow you to pay with PayPal, although they'll only work with an American PayPal account so your Canadian account is of no help. Since the pre-paid VISA card allowed me to create a US PayPal account, I can send money from my Canadian PayPal account to my US PayPal account and then pay Hulu from the US PayPal account. It's a bit convoluted and I haven't tried it yet because the address trick works for me, but it's better than always having to pay 17.5% extra for a pre-paid US VISA card.

If you're going to give this a try, have a look at the referral links at the top right of this page. In the case of Hulu Plus you'll get a two week free trial instead of one week if you subscribe via that link. I get something out of it too - if you turn into a paying customer I get two free weeks of Hulu - they just bill me less than normal for the month.


Hulu vs. Netflix

Hulu Plus is a great complement to Netflix and together they're a fantastic one-two punch for cord cutters. Netflix tends to be more focused on movies, and the TV series that they carry almost never include the current season. Hulu Plus has some movies but they're more focused on TV shows, and most of the episodes appear on Hulu within 24 hours of their network broadcast. If a show happens to on both Hulu and Netflix we'll watch it via Netflix because it's commercial-free.

The one big thing missing from Hulu is content from CBS - they're following the Canadian model and forcing you to watch shows you missed using your web browser on their web site. If the only shows you watch are CBS series like "The Big Bang Theory" or "The Amazing Race", Hulu Plus won't help you. In our case we make sure we record those using our over-the-air antenna. If that's not an option for you, you'll have to watch using your web browser on www.cbs.com/video/ (via Unblock-US) or find the Canadian network that carries the same show and hope that they have it available for streaming from their web site.

There's some concern that the network partnership behind Hulu will eventually cripple it to the point that it's no longer useful to cord cutters. The large media companies in North America seem bound and determined to cling to old business models despite a significant shift in the way people choose to consume content, so there's fear that Hulu will help erode their traditional customer base enough for them to want to kill it. If and when that happens there will be a lot of us dropping Hulu and taking our business to whatever service meets our needs, but at least there are no term contracts with the likes of Netflix or Hulu. If you don't like it any more or simply find that you no longer use, just cancel and put your $8/month toward something else or keep it in the bank.
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