Free TV Channels Online?
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.
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...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 30 Nov 2016
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Free TV Channels Online? (Posted: 30 Nov 2016)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved