Tagged with DNS

Accessing US Content From Canada with a Boxee Box

If you want the answer without having to read the rest: Unblock-Us.  If you want to hear more of the story of my experience, read on!

Following the strong recommendation of my friend Ryan Jones, I finally broke down and bought a Boxee Box to replace my 7 year old Dell laptop as my primary HTPC (Home Theatre PC).  I’ve been fairly happy with the device and it’s functionality, and perhaps I will do a more comprehensive review at a later time, but for now I want to talk about the setup I ended up using to be able to access US only content (e.g. Pandora, Netflix US Selection, etc.) using my Boxee Box.

If you’re curious about the actual mechanism that is used to block access to US content for those of us located elsewhere, I discussed it in more detail in an earlier post about Pandora.  Here, I’ll simply summarize by saying that all computers have an address (just like houses), and that the US content providers check that address when you request content from them, and deny you if your address is not located in the US.  There are several ways you can try and get around this limitation, and unfortunately for most of them if you want to get decent performance you’ll need to open up your wallet.

For my Boxee Box I initially tried to use one of my standby solutions for this problem; a paid VPN service.  In this case I tried using a service called Overplay, chosen because of it’s fairly low cost ($10/month), and the fact that they had an article specifically about using their VPN with the Boxee Box.  I won’t fully replicate their instructions here, but will instead redirect anyone interested in configuring a VPN on the Boxee Box directly to their article here.  Their steps take you through configuring the Boxee Box to use their VPN service and turning it on.  This part of the process went fairly smoothly, but then I started to encounter some issues.

I first attempted to use Netflix with the VPN turned on.  This didn’t work at all, simply leaving me at an unchanging black screen until I exited back to the Boxee Box interface.  Worse, after exiting the app it had disappeared and was nowhere to be found, and I could only recover it by restarting the Boxee Box.   (I should note that I have a support ticket in with Overplay for this issue, and have not yet heard back)  After several attempts with similar results, I attempted changing the VPN server.  Overplay has three servers located in the US; one in each of the west, central, and east.  I was initially using the East server, so I changed to the Central server.  Fortunately the Central server yielded improved results, allowing me to log into Netflix and get my test US-only content (the Tron movie) streaming, as well as to get Pandora configured.  Unfortunately I was still experiencing frustrating issues.  Occasionally my Boxee Box would decide that it no longer had an internet connection, and I would have to go back into the settings and re-run the network wizard so it would realize it was still connected.  I also experienced bandwidth issues with several sources of HD content, exhibited by halts to the streaming every 20-30 seconds as content buffered.  Finally I was frustrated by the fact that the VPN was not turned back on when I restarted the devise.  Every time I restarted the Boxee Box I needed to go back into the settings and reconnect to the VPN.

My vision for using a Boxee Box was that I could achieve a seamless experience for accessing my local content, as well as the US-only content that I sorely miss.  The VPN alternative was falling short of this expectation, so I looked for other alternatives and came across Unblock-US.  This is a somewhat mysterious service which appears to have gone through several name changes, and seems somewhat questionable even from the less than professional appearance of their website.

I also am currently at a loss to explain exactly how their service works.  There is a Quora article trying to answer this question, but no answer has yet been forthcoming.  From what I could find from various discussions it appears to manipulate the DNS requests for the services it enables by returning alternative IP’s, but what exactly it does with your requests after that point I am not sure.  It does not seem likely that they are in fact routing all your streaming content through their servers as they offer a lower price point than any other competitors that are providing products based on that form of solution.  In any case, the failure of the VPN based solution to live up to my expectations led me to give Unblock-US’s 7-day trial a go.

So far I have only had success with their system.  It requires you to go into your network settings and manually change your DNS server to point to their provided servers.  This may seem scary if you don’t know what a DNS is, but they have explicit instructions to walk you through this change in the Boxee Box settings.  I turned off my VPN, followed their instructions, and went to go test how it worked.

Much to my surprise, I have had no issues with Unblock-US’s solution.  Both Netflix and Pandora were still available and working, and the bandwidth issues I was experiencing through VPN were no longer present.  One of the inherent disadvantages of Unblock-US is that they have to support every service you wish to use, but their list of supported services is quite extensive.  I will continue to make use of their service, and if my experience changes I will updated this post, but so far I am surprised to say I am very happy with how well their solution has worked out, and I intend to cancel my VPN subscription and move my subscription dollars over to them.

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Configure Dreamhost to act as a DNS for your Posterous Custom Domain

Posterous added the ability to have a custom domain point to your posterous blog back in summer 2008.  To setup your domain with posterous is relatively simple.  You need to go to your posterous settings for your blog, and add your domain in the “Custom domain name” text box in the “Addresses and such” section.  Then it is necessary to go to your DNS host for your domain (quite often this is hosted by the company you registered your domain with), and add “A type” records for your root domain, and the “www” prefix if you want that to forward as well.  In my case the registrar I used for zittlau.ca does not provide DNS services, so the use of a third-party DNS service was required.

I had previously been using editdns’s free DNS service, but due to recent DDOS attacks they have decided to limit the free services that they will be continuing to provide.  Fortunately the same week as this announcement there happened to be a deal on dreamhost to get one year of hosting, including a domain registration for ~$10.  I jumped on the opportunity to move my DNS over to dreamhost, and get the additional benefit of a proxy which I can use to listen to pandora/last.fm from Canada by appearing to be in the US  (I’ll make a post about this later).  

I unfortunately ran into some issues when I attempted to configure the DNS to forward to posterous.  Dreamhost had already assigned A type records to point to their own server as “Non-editable”.  When I attempted to added A type entries to point to the posterous IP (, zittlau.ca worked correctly and forwarded to posterous, but www.zittlau.ca would not forward.  Doing some checking using nslookup, I discovered that zittlau.ca had setup my custom IP as it’s primary DNS entry, but that www.zittlau.ca was still using the dreamhost webhost as the primary IP address, and my custom IP as the secondary.  

Through some searching I was able to figure out that what I needed to do to remove the web hosting from the domain in Dreamhost.  I’ve attached an image that shows the somewhat scary “Delete” button that needs to be clicked to accomplish this.  Be careful following this procedure if you already host a website at your domain on Dreamhost.  It is possible that clicking this button could delete your files from dreamhosts server, so make sure you back them up first!  If you’re like me and have just moved to dreamhost, or are adding a new domain that doesn’t have a site yet built for it, then you are free to go ahead and click that button.

Clicking this button dreamhost removes the web services from the domain, along with the “Non-editable” DNS entries that are likely causing conflicts.  At this point you should be able to go add A type entries to point to the posterous IP for both the www subdomain, as well as the root domain.  Without the web hosting and the “Non-editable” A records, these should now become the primary DNS resolved IP addresses so that users will be forwarded to your posterous when they visit them (once a few hours have passed for the DNS changes to propagate).

After following this procedure, now the nslookups for both zittlau.ca and www.zittlau.ca resolve to the expected posterous IP (, and my domain behaves as expected, forwarding users to my posterous blog.

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