Misawa base residents no longer are shut out when they try to access their favorite U.S. streaming media websites, and their solution could help other overseas servicemembers and Defense Department civilians who have lost access to online TV, movie and game providers.
Geographic restrictions were lifted for base residents in an effort initiated by a few airmen from the 35th Fighter Wing Communications Squadron at the remote Japan air base and coordination with U.S. media company executives.
“We are in a unique position to help provide content to U.S. servicemembers and to help improve their quality of living,” said Maj. Reid Novotny, the squadron’s commander.
Geographic restrictions are often put into place by streaming media companies. A computer’s Internet Protocol, or IP, address shows its location, and if it’s outside the website’s service area, a message comes up stating the content is not available.
According to Novotny, the restriction problems, ironically, arose with base improvements and a change in Internet providers several years ago. Although the provider advertised faster, more reliable bandwidth, it also offered only IP addresses from Japan, triggering the restrictions many fellow overseas military families and expats experience.
“Netflix accounts for 25 percent of all Internet traffic in Misawa, so it was easy to see that there’s a real desire here for stateside content,” Novotny said. “Our basic thought was that there is no difference between a U.S. citizen in the States and a U.S. citizen on a military base in Japan.”
The streaming media executives agreed.
“We're the first overseas military base to go through any kind of process to get services unlocked for local host nation IPs,” said Senior Airman Auguste Archer, a cyber-surety technician at the wing who is an active gamer and online media consumer. “The first time I went to use the online video gaming website Steam and it didn't work, I knew we had to fix this problem.”
Through a series of persistent phone calls and e-mails, Archer teamed up with Airman 1st Class Erik Baker to lead the effort in contacting numerous online service providers to get Misawa airmen and families some of their favorite movies and shows back.
“We spent about an hour each day for about six months to make sure everything ran smoothly and flawlessly,” Baker said. “Once we came to a solution, it was collecting a long list of IP addresses and sharing them with the media companies.”
Although there are several options to bypass these restrictions, from DNS forwarding services to setting up a virtual private network or installing a browser extension, many of these services involve an additional bill. Archer and Baker wanted a free solution.
It was as simple as an official document from the squadron commander listing each IP address the contracted Internet provider owned and stating they were on base. Netflix, for example, used the list to open a new e-mail system exclusive for military members to allow their content to broadcast overseas.
“Obviously, it’s a huge morale boost for everyone here,” Archer said. “Regaining access to these services is great. It makes a huge impact for a big company like Netflix to work with us.”
This concept is not without limitations. It only applies to residents on base, who also must subscribe to the base's contracted Internet provider. Because many providers have bandwidth caps, users who stream media and download games have to be budgeted or risk penalty fees or throttled service. And base residents who use other Internet technologies, such as WiMax, or simply tether their smartphone aren’t eligible.
Still, Misawa’s system lays the groundwork for other overseas bases to do the same. Even Defense Media Activity in Fort Meade, Md., took notice.
Christopher Hopwood, DMA technical operations director, said American Forces Network is researching how to best mix video-on-demand, streaming and other technology with their existing broadcast services while simultaneously being good stewards of taxpayer dollars.
“Our overseas military audience is critically important to us,” Hopwood said. “AFN’s mission is to give these military personnel, DOD civilians and their families balanced news, quality entertainment and relevant command information. And we’re always looking for better, smarter ways to deliver programming.”
The challenges include ensuring stateside content provider’s rights are protected and, more importantly, ensuring operational security is never sacrificed.
Hopwood said if there is a delivery solution, “we will use a delivery method that is secure, and ensures that only authorized overseas audience members can access AFN programming. We are looking at all options, not just IP identification.”