Being able to stream video is convenient, but occasionally, it can also be a frustrating experience. Anyone who’s queued up a movie from their watch list only to have it stutter along knows what we’re talking about. And while the problem is becoming increasingly less common, it’s not likely to go away as 4K Ultra HD video continues to become more prominent.
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 aren’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.
Opt for an appropriate bandwidth 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 5Mbps of bandwidth for an HD stream and 25Mbps for 4K Ultra HD. You can certainly stream at slower speeds, but if you have a lot of traffic on your network, you may even need a faster connection.
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.
Netflix’s estimates of 5Mbps for HD streaming and 25Mbps for 4K UHD are good starting points, but there’s more to it. If you’re only streaming HD, you might think a 15Mbps plan would be plenty, but that doesn’t account for multiple devices (and people) in your home using 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, homes with multiple devices can put quite a chokehold on your bandwidth.
Keep this in mind, too: Just because you’re paying for 50Mbps doesn’t mean that’s what you’ll get all the time. First of all, your Wi-Fi router likely doesn’t stream as fast as your plan does — those numbers are usually rated for an Ethernet connection. Second, 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 1 a.m. when overall traffic is down, but probably not at 8 p.m., when residential usage is likely at its peak.
Switching to a new internet plan to improve speeds and avoid bandwidth issues is possible … within limits. The U.S. has a 2020 average of around 44Mbps mobile download and 152Mbps fixed broadband download, according to Speedtest.net. That’s good, not great, and barely enough to keep the U.S. in the top 10 countries for internet speeds these days. If your current speeds are around these averages, you may not be able to find a better upgrade option, depending on your location.
However, it’s also a good idea to look at your internet package and potential upgrades to see if GB tiers of services like Google Fiber or Verizon Fios are available in your area. More rural areas may not have a lot of options here, but things are going to improve as we upgrade to 5G and Wi-Fi 6 options.