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This article has undergone more incarnations than the Doctor in Doctor Who. That’s because, as cricket-loving expat Brits will know all too well, it’s getting more and more difficult to listen to Test Match Special over the Internet if you’re not in the UK.

If you are abroad and navigate to the BBC cricket commentary web page you’ll find that the audio link isn’t available, or if it is you just get a pre-recorded loop. Because of so-called “rights issues”, the BBC places geographical restrictions on who can listen to Test Match Special. Not everyone is tech savvy enough to get round this, and this piece is intended for those who need a bit of help with the steps needed to bypass these restrictions.

Your Internet service provider assigns your home network an IP (Internet Protocol) address. Just like a street address, this identifies your location. This means that the BBC (or any other website) can tell where in the world you’re connecting to it from. If your IP address identifies you as being in a country other than the UK, the BBC will then restrict your access to TV and radio programmes. What you need to do is fool the BBC site into believing that you are connecting to it from within the UK. This is where proxy servers come in.

A proxy server is essentially an intermediary between you and whatever website you want to connect to. Think of it like this: you live in Germany and you want to send a letter to the UK, but you want the letter to arrive with a British stamp and postmark. You’d do this by sending the letter to a third party in the UK, who would put your letter in a new envelope, address it and post it. A proxy server works on the same principle. You first connect to a third-party server in the UK, which will have a UK IP address. (Note the space between UK and IP – we’re not talking about the location of Farage’s former mob here!) That server will then connect to the website – in this case the BBC, which will then see an IP address in the UK and grant access to its programmes.

If you do a search for “free proxies” you’ll find plenty of proxy servers offering IPs in the UK. You have to configure your network to connect to them, but I’m not going to explain how to do that for the simple reason that it’s not worth the bother. Most of these free proxies don’t work or offer such a slow connection that it’s impossible to listen to a live audio stream. Even if you do get lucky and find a reliable proxy with a fast connection, the chances are that you still won’t be able to listen to the cricket because the BBC blacklists known proxy IP addresses. Nice to know that the licence fee is being so usefully spent!

The reality is that that if you want to listen to the cricket you’ll have to pay. You can get software that connects you to a reliable, fast proxy with a few clicks. You pay a subscription for the service, but it’s worth it in the long run. In past versions of this piece I recommended a program called Hide IP NG (which later became Hide IP Speed) from Hide-IP-Soft.com, which has served me well for about ten years. It offered several UK IP addresses (and a whole lot more US IP addresses) and although the service was always a bit creaky – some of the IP addresses didn’t work – it did the job just fine. Unfortunately it’s now creakier than the castle door in a horror film. Of the 13 UK IP addresses they were offering in November 2019, only three worked and these were known to, and blocked by, the BBC. For some time there has been no technical support at all – you can send an email but you won’t get a reply. Hide IP is quite cheap and may be OK if you just want a random IP to disguise your own IP address, but I can no longer recommend it at all as a way of getting around the BBC’s geographical restrictions.

I have started to use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) service which, roughly speaking, is a proxy with knobs on. It is called ExpressVPN. I haven’t had it long enough to evaluate it fully, but so far I’m impressed. It gets me through to the cricket commentary and the connection speed is the same as that of my normal Internet. It was quite easy to set up and there is a live chat option for technical support. They update their servers regularly to stay ahead of the BBC’s IP blacklist, which is very important. If this changes I will amend this piece accordingly.

None of this would be necessary if the BBC offered a subscription service for expats. Although I consider the UK licence fee exorbitant in this age of Sky and Netflix, I think it’s fair that people who don’t live in the UK should contribute to the broadcasting costs. If reasonably priced, a subscription service would render the time and money spent on proxy servers redundant, and would provide the BBC with more revenue. Instead, I fear that the day will come when you need proof of a TV licence before you can get access to BBC programmes online – even in the UK – and expat cricket fans would then be well and truly stuffed. Fingers crossed that doesn’t happen, but if it does I hope that Talksport gets the rights to all Test match broadcasts. They did a couple of series recently and although the commentary wasn’t quite the calibre of Test Match Special at its best – and there were adverts, of course – they didn’t block overseas listeners because of stupid “rights issues”.

Who knows what the future will hold for Brits living abroad who want to follow the greatest sport of all? For the time being, I would recommend ExpressVPN, or a similar service, for listening to TMS for reasons outlined above. Enjoy the cricket and good luck to our team!