Simon Melville reports on the free phenomenom that is live football on the internet

Want to watch live Premiership football but can’t afford Sky? No cable TV in your street? Local watering hole doesn’t show those Egyptian broadcasts of the Premiership you’ve heard pubs in the East End of London have?

Don’t worry – if you’ve got a broadband connection at home, you too can be entering the murky realms of watching British football on foreign TV channels.

As we’re proudly told during live transmissions of big games, the TV pictures are being beamed to the homes of millions of viewers around the world and increasingly those people are in Asia. China, in particular, has a huge appetite for football – although it clearly didn’t stretch to buying expensive tickets and traipsing to stadiums to watch Real Madrid and Manchester United play friendlies in the flesh last summer.

Why should they, when those games were also being broadcast live on one of the region’s hundreds of dedicated sports channels? And it’s not just meaningless pre-season revenue generators. The dedicated Chinese couch potato gets to see the league and cup competitions of every major European nation (and Scotland), Champions League and UEFA Cup games, as well as international tournaments thrown into the bargain. And thanks to the world of peer-to-peer networking (P2P) over the internet, the British football fan can enjoy the same service – without a satellite dish that would put Jodrell Bank to shame or paying a penny over your existing broadband bill.

A P2P network is one that relies on the combined computing power and bandwidth of each of the participants – anyone who has used Napster, Limewire or any other file- sharing program will be familiar with the principle. The applications that show Chinese sports channels use exactly the same technology but use it for sharing live TV pictures rather than music files.

It is a simple case of installing the relevant P2P program, waiting for the channel list to load, clicking on the channel name and waiting for the picture to appear on your PC’s media player. There you have it – foreign TV on your screen and, with a bit of luck, showing a game of football. Live and with no subscription fee to stump up.

Inevitably, it’s actually not quite that simple. The first problem is that most of the applications (as well as the channels and commentary) are Chinese. So unless you are a Mandarin speaker (and reader) it won’t be plain sailing. Most of the programs have an option to switch to English, but anyone familiar with internet translations will know how clear such literal renderings of Chinese are – ie not very.

Also, the programs can be quite temperamental (what worked for you today may not work for you tomorrow), schedules are unreliable, the picture is not TV quality and, on lower broadband speeds, may regularly “buffer” (only a certain length of broadcast time can be stored and then shown at any time before the application then has to collect some more images), although with higher speed broadband becoming increasingly cheaper this will be less of a problem.

More important, due to threatening letters from the Premier League, the copyrighted fixtures, kick-off times and anything that could identify which applications should be used for specific channels are rapidly disappearing from the web, meaning the newcomer has a much harder task of figuring out how it works.

The legality of the whole enterprise is questionable – although the individual viewer watching a streamed channel is unlikely to be prosecuted. The channel buying the rights to a competition has the responsibility to make sure only viewers in the designated geographical area where it has the rights can watch the match. Clearly this isn’t the case with British viewers watching Chinese broadcasts of 3pm Saturday Premiership games on their PCs. And BSkyB can’t be delighted that potential punters can forego their monthly charge and take the internet option.

For the time being, it doesn’t look as if these applications can be legally banned or stopped, although finding all the information in one place is now difficult. There are restrictions on them broadcasting 3pm Saturday games, but it certainly wouldn’t be surprising if Sky saw this as an opportunity – with thousands of people in the UK apparently happy to watch football on their PCs via the internet it could well prove that the time is right for Sky to further develop their broadband offering. Although Sky’s software is P2P, currently only highlights and no live events are available to be downloaded.

In a few years the option to watch matches on your PC may become a fully legitimate if more expensive experience for the armchair fan. Let’s just hope they can do it in English.

From WSC 230 April 2006. What was happening this month

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