Streaming video is a huge convenience, but on occasion, it can also be a frustrating experience. Anyone who’s queued up a movie on Netflix or Hulu only to have it stutter along knows what we’re talking about. Just the sight of that endless loading wheel or choppy picture quality is enough to make you want to pull your hair out.
It’s easy to point the finger at Netflix, Amazon, or even your internet provider. But often, the real problem is that your internet service and home network isn’t set up to properly handle the huge amount of data flowing into your home. One of the keys to stress-free streaming is making sure your home’s network infrastructure is up to the task. Here’s how to make sure your home’s network is never the bottleneck in your streaming video pipeline.
Pick your plan
You can spend a small fortune buying the hottest networking equipment on the market, but it won’t make a lick of difference if the internet connection that feeds your home is inadequate. Unfortunately, there’s very little you can do to make your broadband internet service provider’s (ISP) connection reliably fast, but what you can do is make sure you’re subscribed to the plan that promises the right speed and data allowance for your needs. Netflix recommends 5 Mbps of bandwidth for an HD stream and 25 Mbps for those streaming in Ultra HD (these quotes are higher than the actual requirements – that’s just Netflix playing it safe). But that doesn’t mean that’s all you’ll need.
First, let’s address a common misconception: Mbps, the metric used to measure bandwidth, stands for megabits per second, not megabytes per second (MBps). When it comes to data rates, 1 byte = 8 bits. With that in mind, you can start doing a bunch of math to try to determine what kind of bandwidth you need. But if you’re not the math-y type, there’s an easier way to estimate.
Netflix’s estimates of 5Mbps for HD streaming and 25 Mbps for 4K UHD is a good starting point, but there’s more to it. If you’re only streaming HD, you might think a 15 Mbps plan would be plenty, but you’d be forgetting about all the other devices (and people) in your home that use up your bandwidth. Every smartphone, computer, smart TV, cable box, streaming stick, and game console connected to your network may be sending and receiving data at any given moment. Added together, all of your devices can put quite a chokehold on your bandwidth.
Keep this in mind, too: Just because you’re paying for 50 Mbps doesn’t mean that’s what you’ll get all the time. Your neighbors probably like to stream content around the same times you do, and if you’re all sharing the same neighborhood internet pipe, it may clog up from time to time. For example, you may get really close to the promised speed at 3 a.m. when overall traffic is down, but probably not at 8 p.m., when residential usage is likely at its peak.
The kicker: The average American household gets around 18.7 Mbps at last check. That number is a little higher in metropolitan areas, but even Delaware — the state whose residents get the fastest speeds — sits at 25.2 Mbps (Washington D.C. tops everyone at 28.1 Mbps). Right now, few people truly have the resources or the infrastructure to stream unlimited 4K content.
When we talk about data allowance, we’re referring to data caps or download limits that some ISPs impose on their customers. Each ISP has its own plans and policies, but for the sake of illustration let’s say your internet plan allows you to use up to 200GB of data per month with no restrictions on the time of day you use it. That’s a lot of flexible data, and for many folks it is sufficient for a month’s worth of streaming content, cruising Facebook, and so on.
But if you like to watch a lot of streaming HD video (and, these days, who doesn’t?), you may find you need more. Once you hit your monthly cap, your internet won’t just shut off — assuming you paid your bill, of course — but your ISP will “throttle” your connection, slowing everything down drastically.
A good way to get a read on your data needs is to visit your account page at your ISP’s website. Most offer a data meter with historical information that shows how much data you’ve been gobbling up for the past few months. If you’re just getting started with Netflix and you’re already pushing the limit, it’s time to look at another plan.
To put things in perspective, consider what Netflix says about how much data its movies and TV shows can take up. The company claims that one hour of HD programming eats up about 3GB of data — 4K Ultra HD content bumps that up to about 7 GB per hour. Use those numbers as a rough estimate for any other video platforms you use.
Some ISPs have moved to lifting caps as a rule, but offer savings to customers who opt into accepting one. These plans are usually offered to those who pay for slower connections (15Mbps or lower) and don’t use a lot of data anyway. Those plans aren’t ideal for anyone that relies on a lot of streaming HD content.
Once you’ve got the internet service coming into your home locked down, you need to make sure it doesn’t take a nosedive the second it comes through the wall. To do this, you need high-quality networking gear. The good news is, you don’t have to spend a mountain of cash to get it.
The modems that ISPs supply generally aren’t bad. Just make sure the model they’re offering supports DOCSIS 3.0 — the latest protocol for cable modems — for the best possible speeds. (Pricier modems have DOCSIS 3.1, but that won’t benefit the typical homeowner.) If you want to buy your own, potentially saving $20-30 or more each month, ask your ISP for a list of approved modems. Here’s Comcast’s list, and Time Warner’s for reference.
Those modem/Wi-Fi router combo units, though? They’re not so great. They might be limited to two-thirds the speed and range of a similar wireless router from the likes of Linksys, Netgear or D-Link. Those manufacturers have rightly identified that some consumers want the fastest streaming speeds available, and have used language like “Media” or “HD” to market their top router models.
If you’re planning on doing a lot of HD or Ultra HD streaming, consider the stealth bomber-esque Netgear Nighthawk X10 or the slightly cheaper Linksys WRT AC3200. We’ve got an entire list of the best routers, too, if you want more guidance. Some of these models don’t come cheap, but they’re ideal for heavy video streaming thanks to high performance and intuitive interfaces that let you customize and prioritize how your bandwidth is used.
Wire it up!
While most streaming video devices support 802.11ac Wi-Fi right now, lots of them also have Ethernet ports for a wired connection that’s more reliable and uninhibited by Wi-Fi’s bandwidth limitations. Ideally, you could plug your devices directly into your router or an Ethernet switch, but if your devices aren’t right next to your router and you don’t have Ethernet cable strung throughout the home, you might think going wireless is the only real option.
It’s not. Powerline adapters, which come in pairs, are excellent networking tools that can route an internet connection through a home’s power lines as a way to bridge devices and routers in separate rooms. For example: Plug one adapter into a power outlet near the router upstairs and connect them with an Ethernet cable. Then plug in the other adapter into an outlet near the streaming device in another room and connect them via Ethernet. You now have a wired connection, even though the two are nowhere near each other.
The same is possible with Wi-Fi extenders that pull in a wireless signal and connect to nearby devices via Ethernet for the added boost. Powerline adapters have the edge because there is no latency in the connection, whereas extenders could be affected by signal or range limitations (though this is less of a problem since the advent of 802.11ac).
Cost vs. benefit
Upgrading your home network to accommodate all the streaming you’d like to do is going to incur some upfront costs. An upgrade in service from your ISP, a new dependable router (and modem, if necessary) and possibly a powerline adapter or Wi-Fi range extender adds up to a pretty penny, but the investment should pay off in the long term.
These days, we stream everything. And the more you know about your data consumption and network capabilities, the better you can manage your monthly costs — and beat the buffer.