Free TV Channels Online?

Category: Television

USTVnow is an online service that claims you can watch all your favorite US television channels from anywhere around the world, via your computer, smartphone or smart TV. But does it really work, and is it legal? Let's take a look...

What is USTVNow?

When I first ran across USTVnow I immediately thought of Aereo, the ill-fated startup that rented to each customer a TV antenna and DVR for just $8 per month. That combo enabled a customer to stream over-the-air (OTA) broadcast programming from the location of the antenna to the customer, wherever he was.

So, for example, a New York Giants fan currently in Los Angeles could watch the home team games on a TV set, PC, smartphone, or other device. Aereo was also a way to “cut the cord” for people who were satisfied with local broadcast channels to get them without paying a cable TV firm’s high monthly fees. Aereo was a sweet deal for cord-cutters.

Aereo could sell its service so cheaply because it did not pay for the content that it sold to its customers. Content producers and cable companies cried foul, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that Aereo violated copyright law. That spelled the end of Aereo, after only two years. The company filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy and its depleted assets were purchased by Tivo for $1 million.

Free US TV channels?

But here’s USTVnow, which seems to do pretty much the same thing Aereo did, yet has been getting away with it since 2008. The company offers a free package of seven U.S. TV channels including ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, Fox, NBC, My9, and The CW. Subscription bundles start with 28 channels for $19/month for the first three months, then $29/month thereafter. These two plans come with limited DVR capacity, enabling customers to store content for later viewing. A third bundle provides unlimited DVR capacity and 28 channels for $29/month for the first three months, and $39/month thereafter. There are higher-priced plans, up to $199/month for 200 channels.

USTVnow prominently insists that its service is only for U.S. citizens who are currently in foreign countries. It makes a big deal of serving members of the military deployed overseas. But that noble purpose does not exempt the company from copyright law. Furthermore, the “expatriates only” claim is demonstrably false. Yes, when you sign up for a free account, USTVnow asks what country you are in. But it doesn’t verify your answer. Choose “Afghanistan” or “Mexico” even though you’re in Albuquerque or Milwaukee, and you can still get USTVnow.

Is USTVNow Legal?

Add to that the scarcity of information about the company on its Web site and the whole thing looks pretty sketchy. You have to dig deep into the Terms of Service legalese to learn that USTVnow is owned and operated by Dutch Phone Holdings, Inc., based in New York City. Dutch Phone was founded in 2004, and through 2007 it specialized in providing VoIP services to Dutch expatriates, allowing them to have Dutch phone numbers no matter where they were in the world. Then, in 2008, USTVnow was born. Finally, I figured out what it really is.

USTVnow is an example of “Slingbox hosting.” A Slingbox accepts video input from your TV or DVR and “slings” it across the Internet to wherever you are. You can select content and control the Slingbox via an app on a PC, mobile device, or Smart TV. But you don’t have to buy a Slingbox. You can borrow or rent someone else’s, and simply use that party’s Slingbox credentials to log into the box. USTVnow started out renting Slingboxes and their accounts, and later developed its own proprietary streaming media technology.

However, to be legal, you must own the right to view the content that is “slung” to you. Normally, individuals subscribe to a cable TV bundle to obtain that right. Where does USTVnow buy the rights to sling all of those channels to an unknown number of customers and free users?

It turns out (after much detective work) that USTVnow has a partnership with Nittany Media, a small cable TV operator in central Pennsylvania. Nittany licenses content from networks and distributes it through Nittany’s cable network and USTVnow. Presumably, USTVnow is paying part of Nittany’s licensing fees in some form or another. The partnership increases Nittany’s profits and gives USTVnow something it can sell legally.

One downside of this deal is that all USTVnow subscribers are limited to content that Nittany licenses. That means the 7 local over-the-air TV channels for the Harrisburg, PA area that I listed above. You won’t be watching the New York Giants play at home. You won't be getting HBO, or any "premium" cable channels for free.

Nittany does license A&E, Bravo, Comedy Central, CNN, Discovery, ESPN, Fox News, NatGeo, Nickelodeon, and a dozen other cable channels. But if you want to watch those, you'll need to pay for one of their "All Channels" packages, at either $29 or $39 per month.

So USTVNow appears to be legit, but still I don't get a good vibe from a company that's operating on the fringes of the law. It's trivial to determine a user's country by examining their IP address. (See for yourself, here https://www.maxmind.com/en/locate-my-ip-address) So when they say "you must be a US citizen or resident to watch US programming," but make no effort to verify your location, that tells me they're giving a wink and a nod to folks in the US who want to sign up for the service.

Good Deal for Cord Cutters?

Aside from the legal questions, is USTVNow a good deal for "cord cutters" who want to pay for Internet only, and get their TV, movie and phone services online? You'd have to do the math, comparing this option to the "triple play" Internet/Phone/TV bundles offered by the phone and cable providers.

But if you're seriously considering a paid package from USTVNow, I'd suggest you compare it to Sling TV, which offers a $20/month package with 30 popular cable channels, and a $25/month package with 40 channels. Both are cheaper than USTVNow, and you don't have any legal or licensing concerns with Sling.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

 
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Most recent comments on "Free TV Channels Online?"

Posted by:

J
30 Nov 2016

I just checked out Sling TV. It's a third of the cost of my cable right now but it only offers NBC on demand so I guess I'll be passing on that not. I hate what I pay for my cable bill and it's not reliable enough for me to trust it with my cable, phone, and internet. The cable tends to still go out with storms and I would hate to be without phone service during a blizzard or bad summer storm. So, I guess for now, I'm stuck with the ridiculous cable bill. Thanks for the info, Bob!


Posted by:

Jim
30 Nov 2016

I am a U.S. citizen living in Canada, a cord cutter and have used USTVNow free version. It does perform as advertised, however, the last time I viewed it the quality was very poor. At first it was better, not great, but watchable. If you really want to watch U.S. channels it is an option, just don't expect the quality of Netflix.


Posted by:

mardabo
30 Nov 2016

I cancelled my $150 cable 5 years ago and never have regretted it. I use a digital TV antenna to pick up the local commercial broadcast channels and I have Roku/smart tv with my internet. There are dozens of free channels, including Youtube access (which is better entertainment on my TV than it ever was on my PC) and Netflix is $9 a month. Happy


Posted by:

Dianne
30 Nov 2016

I have subscriptions to Hulu, Acorn, and Netflix...which total far less than a cable connection. I have Amazon Prime for now, though I never get as much from that as is advertised. I get local stations on my television and the rest I watch on my computer (because I am too stupid to understand how Roku works). Between the three subscriptions, I don't find I miss anything of importance to me. I'd say figure out what you really are interested viewing and try to avoid paying for the stuff that are useless extras (I don't watch sports, why would I want to pay for them?).


Posted by:

W
30 Nov 2016

I'm curious to know people's typical total cost for high-speed internet plus any subscriptions to streaming services. I have bundled cable TV with 2.5 MPBS internet (not fast enough to stream HD). Dropping the cable TV and bumping up to fast internet would be a net monthly cost of $50. A couple of subscriptions mean that cutting the cord still gets fairly expensive.


Posted by:

Diann
30 Nov 2016

I use an outdoor digital antenna, purchased my own cable modem, lowered my internet access and pay 30 dollars a month for cable access.. I also use the firestick and roku and use magicjack on my tablet. (Anything to save money) My cable company just kept raising their rates to the point that it was unaffordable for me, a senior.


Posted by:

Mott Given
30 Nov 2016

You can watch most cable TV shows for free with free software called Kodi on your desktop PC. It does not require any additional equipment or any monthly fee.

EDITOR'S NOTE: And it's not legal, either. Any service, software or gadget that offers you something for free, that would normally require a payment or subscription, should raise a red flag in your mind.


Posted by:

Bob k
30 Nov 2016

"EDITOR'S NOTE: And it's not legal, either. Any service, software or gadget that offers you something for free, that would normally require a payment or subscription, should raise a red flag in your mind."

By this definition, my antenna for receiving local TV stations for free, that the cable people charge me for, should raise a red flag!

I was not familiar with Kodi -- just did a quick search on it, and it appears to be just another media player -- maybe like VLC -- and I guess is available on the Microsoft Store.


Posted by:

Fred Bertram
30 Nov 2016

The world sure is changing more and more tv corporations are realising that you can not stop the internet
Try to google your favorite stations you might be surprised
Google offers a service called Hola it spoof's your location And from other countries you can accses american content
Another awesome service is Streema you can receive live tv content from around the world also any or many radio stations world wide many of them (tv) is web content only but I found a lot of live tv especially outside of north america
I live in canada and watched the olympics live in english here
Google for such things and magic happens
Respectfully Fred Carlos


Posted by:

RandiO
30 Nov 2016

I am still trying to wrap my head around the $300 "Pandora Media Box", which sounds on the shady side of the law but they have been in business for about a year.


Posted by:

john silberman
30 Nov 2016

Bob, I think you are incorrect, KODI/XMBC is completely legal. It is simply a software media center. It could be used to display illegal content, but that is no different than a PC displaying illegal content. Maybe you can do an article about KODI and its legal applications.

EDITOR'S NOTE: When I said it's not legal, I was referring to the use of Kodi to pirate paid content. The original commenter said "You can watch most cable TV shows for free with free software called Kodi..." Of course the Kodi software is not to blame, similar to the Bittorrent situation.


Posted by:

Juanita Moore
01 Dec 2016

We cut the cord last year by making a coat hanger antenna from Popular Mechanics' instructions online. We get all 3 major networks, Fox, CW, Laff, Grit, and the PBS stations. My husband missed sports, so we signed up for Sling TV so he could watch ESPN and later added the sports package with the SEC Network. Sling isn't always perfect, but it is worth the money compared to cable. Now we just pay for internet. We have not regretted cutting the cord at all.


Posted by:

Gary in Wisconsin
01 Dec 2016

Never paid a dime for pay tv. I use a 40 year old antenna and get over 60 over the air channels here in southeast Wisconsin. I use the Netflix DVD service and have broadband internet. The pay tv providers can pay ME if they want to pump all those annoying, ad filled programs into my home. i use Ooma, Tracfone and yes, I refill my own ink tanks. You may think I'm a little too frugal but why not? It's our money!


Posted by:

Richard
01 Dec 2016

The free USTV is not in HD. Another addon expense if you want HD.


Posted by:

Chris C
01 Dec 2016

The official Kodi download does not have any media add-ons. If you intend to use Kodi for signal pirating, you will have to download third party software at your own risk. Their site clearly warns about both the legal and malware risks of doing so.
Downloading unknown third party apps designed to avoid copyright fees involves security risks and should not be done casually.


Posted by:

SamG
02 Dec 2016

Talking about copyright violations, though this is a little off subject, Cnet announced a Mr. Stein had took all 8 Harry Potter movies and condensed them into a 1 hour 18 minute movie earlier this week. For our viewing pleasure on Vimeo. A day later it disappeared. Link led to a Warner Bros. copyright violation warning and content is not here. Kudos to Mr. Stein, but it disappeared before I could watch it.


Posted by:

SamG
02 Dec 2016

Had to return to correct my post- Tim Stiefler was the ''wizardhood'' author. And yes, I was looking forward to subscribing to Aereo. My better half pays for Dish. I pay for Verizon SLOW dsl service. Although Comcast is available?


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