Netflix UK Update

As we’ve now been using the Netflix service for a few weeks I though it was time for a bit of an update. Overall I’m still generally pleased with the service. The lack of a queue still bugs me but it’s not the end of the world so I’ll live with that. Picture quality seems to vary quite a lot from film to film but on the whole it’s been good, the older films seem to have the poorer quality streams which is odd as they have probably been encoded from a very high quality source.

Closed Captions / Subtitles

While watching Air Force One the other night we discovered something very disappointing – when the characters spoke Russian subtitles were not automatically displayed in English. This is a common problem if you rip your own DVD collection because most container formats don’t record the hints that cause subtitles to be displayed (alternatively you can have a subtitle track for just those bits that need it). I would really have expected a company as big as Netflix, who’s very existence if tied to correctly streaming films, to have addressed and fixed this issue but apparently not. That leaves us with the option of either trying to guess what they are saying or turning the subtitles on and off all the time. The latter option is not really an option because the character has normally got a line or two out before you can switch subtitles on so it would mean rewinding and… life’s too short.

Netflix UK Poor Content Selection

The second issue is the poor content selection that Netflix UK has. I initially thought that there were quite a lot of films available but I decided to quickly go through and estimate how many there really is. My conclusion is that in the UK we have an absolute maximum of 2000 films available for streaming. Worse, most of those films are old and middle of the road in terms of quality. There’s not much in the selection that I would class as terrible but at the same time there’s not much great stuff. I wasn’t expecting to see the huge franchise films like Star Wars in there but I was expecting to see the sort of stuff you get advertised on the side of a bus.

Over all, I don’t think we will be cancelling our service in the next few months but I don’t think this is a service we’ll be with forever unless they do something radical in terms of content. I suspect we’ll give it a year then switch to LoveFilm to see what they have to offer.

Netflix American Content

So, having had my rant about  the poor content selection on Netflix UK it’s time to tell you about a solution. The Netflix US site has a lot more films. Where the UK site has 17 pages of HD films (that’s about 750 films)  the US site has 91 pages (over 4000+ films). Some Google action has turned up a service called Unblock Us which claims to let you watch Netflix US content anywhere in the world. The only change you have to make is to re-configure your DNS setting to use there DNS servers. I tried it out and it works.

Being of the geeky persuasion I couldn’t just accept that it worked though so I decided to try and figure out what it was doing. My initial guess what Netflix was filtering content by simply returning a different IP address if you were based in Europe to if you were based in the US. This would be easy to get around with a couple of entries in the hosts file and was what I tried first.

A DNS look up against a US DNS server gives these results:

Retrieving DNS records for movies.netflix.com...

DNS servers
ns-941.amazon.com [204.246.160.5]

Answer records
merchweb-frontend-us-999408195.us-east-1.elb.amazonaws.com		SOA	

merchweb-frontend-us-999408195.us-east-1.elb.amazonaws.com		NS	ns-941.amazon.com	600s
merchweb-frontend-us-999408195.us-east-1.elb.amazonaws.com		A	50.17.195.84	60s
merchweb-frontend-us-999408195.us-east-1.elb.amazonaws.com		A	50.16.250.15	60s
merchweb-frontend-us-999408195.us-east-1.elb.amazonaws.com		A	50.17.180.250	60s
merchweb-frontend-us-999408195.us-east-1.elb.amazonaws.com		A	50.19.119.2	60s
merchweb-frontend-us-999408195.us-east-1.elb.amazonaws.com		A	50.19.217.220	60s
merchweb-frontend-us-999408195.us-east-1.elb.amazonaws.com		A	107.20.208.79	60s
merchweb-frontend-us-999408195.us-east-1.elb.amazonaws.com		A	50.19.116.48	60s
merchweb-frontend-us-999408195.us-east-1.elb.amazonaws.com		A	50.19.231.113	60s

and a DNS look up against a European DNS server gives these results:

;; QUESTION SECTION:
;movies.netflix.com.            IN      A

;; ANSWER SECTION:
movies.netflix.com.     496     IN      CNAME   merchweb-frontend-eu-1803756347.eu-west-1.elb.amazonaws.com.
merchweb-frontend-eu-1803756347.eu-west-1.elb.amazonaws.com. 36 IN A 176.34.232.91
merchweb-frontend-eu-1803756347.eu-west-1.elb.amazonaws.com. 36 IN A 176.34.232.96
merchweb-frontend-eu-1803756347.eu-west-1.elb.amazonaws.com. 36 IN A 176.34.232.99
merchweb-frontend-eu-1803756347.eu-west-1.elb.amazonaws.com. 36 IN A 176.34.232.100
merchweb-frontend-eu-1803756347.eu-west-1.elb.amazonaws.com. 36 IN A 176.34.232.110
merchweb-frontend-eu-1803756347.eu-west-1.elb.amazonaws.com. 36 IN A 176.34.232.43
merchweb-frontend-eu-1803756347.eu-west-1.elb.amazonaws.com. 36 IN A 176.34.232.56
merchweb-frontend-eu-1803756347.eu-west-1.elb.amazonaws.com. 36 IN A 176.34.232.73

Clear they are point the European market at different servers which makes sense from the point of view of shipping data across the pond. Sticking some entries in the hosts file that point the European server names at the US IP addresses didn’t, unfortunately, work though. I suspected it wouldn’t be that easy but it was worth at try.

So I decided to do a little more digging, terrible joke I know, and have a look at what was being returned by the Unblock Us servers. A dig of movies.netflix.com at the Unblock Us DNS server (dig @208.122.23.22 movies.netflix.com) returns this:

;; QUESTION SECTION:
;movies.netflix.com.            IN      A

;; ANSWER SECTION:
movies.netflix.com.     180     IN      A       173.208.170.61
movies.netflix.com.     180     IN      A       50.22.92.213
movies.netflix.com.     180     IN      A       68.169.55.23
movies.netflix.com.     180     IN      A       69.89.12.93
movies.netflix.com.     180     IN      A       173.208.155.61

Which is completely different to the results you normally would get. A reverse DNS lookup for that first IP address doesn’t turn up anything interesting other than the fact this it’s not a Netflix / Amazon server.

IP address:                     173.208.170.61
Reverse DNS:                    [No reverse DNS entry per ns1.kcnoc.com.]
Reverse DNS authenticity:       [Unknown]
ASN:                            32097
ASN Name:                       WII-KC
IP range connectivity:          1
Registrar (per ASN):            ARIN
Country (per IP registrar):     US [United States]
Country Currency:               USD [United States Dollars]
Country IP Range:               173.208.0.0 to 173.208.255.255
Country fraud profile:          Normal
City (per outside source):      Unknown
Country (per outside source):   -- []
Private (internal) IP?          No
IP address registrar:           whois.arin.net
Known Proxy?                    No
Link for WHOIS:                 173.208.170.61

A  WhoIs lookup for the first IP address returns this:

WholeSale Internet, Inc. WII-OAK-2 (NET-173-208-128-0-1) 173.208.128.0 - 173.208.255.255
UnblockUs Inc. WII-170-2-254 (NET-173-208-170-0-1) 173.208.170.0 - 173.208.170.255

So the service is pointing you to it’s servers rather than the Netflix servers. At this point I think it’s safe to conclude that what they are doing is running a trasparent proxy. When you attempt to connect to Netflix they simply proxy the connection so that you appear to be in the US.

This is a really clever way around the problem. There are hardly any settings changes on you machine, in fact if you wanted your whole network to look at the US site you could change the DNS IP addresses given out by your router. As long as Unblock Us don’t mess about with the DNS servers in any other way it should also be an esentially transparent work around. The only problem comes if they start redirecting other DNS requests in much the same way as some ISPs did so that they could feed customers adverts.

So, the question now is how to get US content. You could just pay Unblock Us for their service. At $4.99 a month it’s certainly cheap enough but the inner geek in me hates paying for things like this. I also have a very non-standard home network. I run my own DNS server which I need to use to connect to servers I run here. Making use of the Unblock Us servers wouldn’t be impossible but it’s less than ideal. An alternative solution is for me to set up my own transparent proxy in the US. All that would require is renting a cheap and chearful VPS somewhere in the US and then setting up a proxy server on it. It’s pretty easy to get a VPS now with 100GB+ a month which would just about cut it.

This page discusses setting up your own proxying service. If I get the time I might give it a go.

References

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