Chapter 7

Getting Your Internet Access Ready for Streaming


Bullet Learning what to look for in a new Wi-Fi router

Bullet Extending your wireless network to avoid dead zones

Bullet Checking that you have enough Internet bandwidth

Bullet Reducing streaming data usage

Bullet Making sure your download speeds are stream-worthy

One of the nice things you can say about having traditional cable TV service is that it's a set-it-and-forget-it experience. That is, once you have your cable connected to the set-top box and the set-top box connected to your TV, you're good to go: Just turn on the television and start clicking through channels. With cable, there's no such thing as a bad connection because the data comes to you via a dedicated, well, cable. Sure, technical problems arise from time to time, but you mostly get solid service without any fuss.

Watching streaming media isn't as straightforward because that media comes to you via the Internet and then is broadcast through your home via Wi-Fi. If your Internet connection or your wireless network are slow or flaky, your streaming adventures will suffer big time.

So, all the more reason to make sure you have the Internet access and Wi-Fi network that will support your nascent streaming habit. In this chapter, you delve into the devices, plans, and architectures that should be part of any modern-day streamer's basic home configuration. If your current Internet and wireless access just isn't good enough, you learn everything you need to know to turn your experience from streaming nightmare to streaming nirvana.

Investing in a New Router

When you get into streaming media, it's easy to forget about the hardware that underlies everything. After all, after you connect a player or start your smart TV, all the streaming seems to happen right there on your screen as you navigate from app to app and show to show. If you think about where all that content comes from, it's with a vague nod to an amorphous cloud out there somewhere on the other end of the Internet's tubes.

However, for streaming media to get from the cloud out there to your TV in here, the data has to pass through what is arguably the most important — and certainly the most used — gadget in your house: your Wi-Fi router. That device is the beating heart of your wireless network. It's the workhorse through which you surf, email, chat, meet, post, and perform all the other verbs that are the hallmarks of online life.

Ah, but now you've added a new verb to that collection: stream. Any old bargain-basement router can surf and email and the rest of it, but asking a cheap router to stream is asking for trouble. If you're using such a router, it might be time to consider an upgrade that offers the best features for streaming. What are those features? Here's a summary of what to look for:

  • Bands: All modern routers support data transfers over two frequencies: 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. If you see a router that supports only 2.4 GHz, walk away.
  • Speeds: Get the highest speeds you can afford, which should mean at least 500 Mbps on the 2.4 GHz band and at least 1 Gbps on the 5 GHz band.
  • Tri-band: This type of router offers three radio bands, usually one at 2.4 GHz and two at 5 GHz, which means you can configure the router to balance the load between bands for optimum performance, especially for streaming media.
  • Intelligent band steering: This feature enables the router to automatically choose the best (the fastest or least congested) band available for the data it's receiving.
  • Quality of Service (QoS): This feature enables you to choose an application or device or both that should receive priority access to the network (see Figure 7-1).
  • Wi-Fi 6: This is the latest version of Wi-Fi (also known as 802.11ax), which promises significantly faster speeds than Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac). However, you need devices that support Wi-Fi 6 to take advantage of these higher speeds. If you don't have such devices yet, you can still go for a Wi-Fi 6 router now because it will be compatible with Wi-Fi 5.
Snapshot of QoS features let you to prioritize network applications or devices or both.

FIGURE 7-1: QoS features let you to prioritize network applications or devices or both.

Extending Your Wi-Fi Network

The point of a Wi-Fi network is to beam signals from your router to any wireless-capable device in your home (and, of course, to beam data back to the router, as needed). That's the theory, but in practice this simple idea breaks down if you live in a large home or a house that has three or more floors. If you live in such a place, you probably know from bitter experience that your house has at least one — but more likely a few — dead zones, where you get a weak Wi-Fi signal at best or no signal at worst.

Want to stream some media to one of these places? Sorry. It's just not going to happen, or the signal will be misery-inducingly bad.

Why do dead zones happen? Two main reasons:

  • The dead zone lies at the edge of or beyond the range of your router's wireless signal.
  • The streaming device's wireless antenna isn't powerful enough to pick up the router's signal.

What can you do about dead zones? Quite a bit, actually:

  • Move the streaming device closer to the router: If your streaming device is mobile (such as a smartphone or tablet), try moving closer to the router until you get a stronger signal.
  • Move the router to a more central location: In a large or multi-story house, the best location for the router is as close to the geographical center of the house as possible. Moving the router might be a tall order given that it needs a direct Ethernet connection to your Internet modem. In that case, consider asking your Internet provider to move the modem's wall jack to the location you want.
  • Change the channel: If your router is broadcasting its signal on a channel that's also being used by your neighbors, you might get degraded performance. You can often fix the problem by changing the router's broadcast to a different channel. See the documentation that came with your router to learn how to choose a different channel.
  • Add a wireless range extender: Adding an extender boosts the Wi-Fi signal. Depending on the router, the extender can more than double the normal wireless range, although the resulting signal is usually about half a strong as a full-strength signal.

    Warning Most range extenders create a separate wireless network, which is a hassle. Look for a range extender that shares the name and password of your existing wireless network.

  • Set up a wireless mesh network: A mesh network is a wireless network that combines a router and one or more extension nodes (also called satellites) to extend the full capabilities of the network to every corner of your home. Mesh networks can be expensive but they're usually the most robust way to get full coverage throughout your home.
  • Upgrade your router: If you're in the market for a new router, look for a router that has features that extend the wireless range and better enable the signal to penetrate walls and other solid barriers.

How Much Bandwidth Is Enough?

Bandwidth is a measure of how much data gets sent and received along an Internet connection over a specific time frame, usually a month. For example, if you send and receive a gigabyte of data every day for 30 days, your bandwidth for that month is 30 GB. Why is bandwidth relevant to you? For one simple reason:

Streaming media eats bandwidth for lunch. And dinner. Yep, and breakfast, too.

I talk about the specifics of streaming data usage in the next section. For now, the upshot is that when you're reviewing your Internet access, you need to take a hard look at the data portion of your ISP's plans. These plans can be complicated, but they all really boil down to choosing one of the following:

  • Bandwidth cap: A maximum amount of bandwidth that you're allowed to use per month. Most big-time ISPs offer a terabyte (1 TB or 1,024 GB) of bandwidth per month. If you go over the cap, you'll be charged a fee, usually around $10 for every 50 GB of extra data. Many ISPs also let you purchase more bandwidth (say, an extra 250 GB for $15 per month).

    Warning Rather than charge you extra when you exceed your data cap, some ISPs slow down your Internet download speed. That doesn't sound so bad, until you realize that this slower speed might be as low as 1 or 2 Mbps, which is too slow for streaming (see “I Feel the Need — the Need for Speed!” later in this chapter).

  • No bandwidth cap: No maximum amount of bandwidth per month. Some ISPs only offer unlimited bandwidth plans. However, with most ISPs, to get unlimited data, you usually have to pay between $30 and $50 extra per month.

How do you choose between these options? If your budget allows, an unlimited data plan is the way to go because then you can stream to your heart's content and never worry about dreaded overage fees (or speed throttling). Otherwise, is a terabyte of data enough? It sure sounds like a lot of data, but remember what I said earlier about the ravenous hunger of streaming media. To know whether a data cap is right for you, you need to know more about how streaming media uses bandwidth, which is what I talk about in the next section.

Taking a look at streaming media bandwidth usage

To make an intelligent guess about how much bandwidth your new streaming habit might use, you need to know the bandwidth rates for the services you use. These rates often aren't easy to come by but are sometimes available in the settings section of the service.

To save you some legwork, the following table lists the approximate bandwidth usage per streaming hour of several popular streaming services.


Standard definition (SD) per hour

High definition (HD) per hour

4K ultra-high definition (UHD) per hour

Amazon Prime Video

600 MB

1.3 GB

5.8 GB


675 MB

2.7 GB

7.2 GB


700 MB

3 GB

7 GB

Sling TV

500 MB

1.2 GB

2 GB


560 MB

3 GB

16 GB

To use Netflix as an example, if you stream 4K video for five hours each day, you'll use 1,050 GB over 30 days, which is just a hair over the 1,024 GB (1 TB) cap that's standard on many Internet plans. By comparison, you could stream about 11 hours of HD video per day and still be under a 1 TB cap.

Going on a bandwidth diet

If you've run the numbers and it looks like your streaming usage is going to consume more than whatever limited data cap you can afford (or if your recent usage history shows that you're coming close to or exceeding your cap), you need to reduce that consumption to avoid extra fees (or a service slowdown).

Fortunately, you can use several techniques to put your bandwidth usage on a stricter diet:

  • Configure your streaming service to use less data. Most streaming services have a setting that lets you choose a stream quality of SD (sometimes shown as low), HD (medium), or UHD (high). Figure 7-2 shows these options in the Playback Settings screen of Netflix.
    Snapshot of the most streaming services let you choose a data usage setting.

    FIGURE 7-2: Most streaming services let you choose a data usage setting.

  • Disable automatic playback. Most streaming services enable a setting that automatically starts the next episode in a series as soon as you finish watching the current episode. That's convenient, for sure, but it's also an easy way to burn through a bunch of data if you fall asleep (hey, no judgement). Some services (particularly Netflix and Amazon Prime Video) limit the number of episodes that get played automatically, but why waste data if you're bumping up against your data ceiling? Dive into each service's settings and disable the following (the Netflix versions of these settings are shown near the top of Figure 7-2):
    • Automatic playback of episodes
    • Automatic playback of previews
  • Disable automatic downloads. Some services automatically download the next episode of the show you're currently watching. In fact, some services will download the next two, three, or even more episodes! These services are trying to be convenient, but if you don't intend to watch another episode right away or find that you dislike the show you're watching, you've just wasted a ton of bandwidth. Head for the service settings and disable this feature. (Figure 7-3 shows this setting still activated in the Amazon Prime Video mobile app.)
    Snapshot of disabling the automatic download of the next episodes of the show you're watching.

    FIGURE 7-3: Disable the automatic download of the next episodes of the show you're watching.

  • Enable downloads for episodes you watch multiple times. Yes, this seems to be the opposite of the advice in the preceding item, but if you (or, more likely, your kids) will be watching a show multiple times, it's better to download the episode once and then watch it again from your device instead of re-streaming it.

Understanding How Streaming Works

To make the best choices for Internet access, you should understand a bit about how streaming works. As you might imagine, streaming media is a hideously complex bit of business that requires extremely sophisticated hardware and software to make everything work as well as it does. The good news is that you don’t need to know anything about that complexity, so you can shut off all those alarm bells ringing in your head. Instead, this section provides you with a basic overview of how streaming performs its magic.

The streaming process

The general process for streaming an on-demand audio or video file is illustrated in Figure 7-4.

Schematic illustration of an overview of how streaming works.

FIGURE 7-4: An overview of how streaming works.

As Figure 7-4 shows, streaming is a five-step process:

  1. For on-demand audio or video, the media file is stored on the web using a special computer called a web server.
  2. When a user requests the media, the server begins sending the first few seconds of the audio or video file to the user.
  3. When the data reaches the user’s network, the network’s wireless router passes the data along to the streaming media device.

    Note that the router is usually wireless, but it doesn’t have to be.

  4. The streaming media device waits until it has a certain amount of the media before it starts the playback.

    The saved data is stored in a special memory location called a buffer. (See the next section, “More about buffering,” for, well, more about buffering.)

  5. When the buffer contains enough data to ensure a smooth playback, the stream is sent to the user’s TV or mobile device, and the entertainment begins.

More about buffering

The buffering process that occurs in Steps 4 and 5 in the preceding section is such a crucial part of streaming that it goes on throughout the playback, not just at the beginning. For example, when you examine the current progress of the playback, you usually see a progress bar similar to Figure 7-5. The circle shows your current position in the playback. Just ahead of the circle is a dark portion of the progress bar, which shows you how much of the upcoming stream is stored in the buffer; the rest of the progress bar is white, which tells you that part of the stream hasn’t yet been received by the streaming media device. (The colors may vary on your TV or mobile device.)

Snapshot of Media streams are buffered for smoother playback.

FIGURE 7-5: Media streams are buffered for smoother playback.

Why not just play the media as it arrives and skip the buffer altogether? That would be nice, and it just might work in an ideal world, but the world we inhabit is far from ideal. In real life, media streams can suffer from a number of problems:

  • The server may be slow to respond if it has to deal with a large number of media requests.
  • Your Internet connection speed may be slow.
  • Your network speed may be slow.
  • Glitches between the server and your network may mean that large parts of the media stream are delayed or missing.

Any one of these problems could interrupt the stream playback for a split second to a few seconds. Without a buffer to fall back on, your show would have to stop mid-playback to wait for the delay to resolve. However, with anywhere from a few to a few dozen seconds stored in the buffer, the streaming media device can keep the stream playing, and you remain blissfully unaware of any problems because they happen in the background, without affecting your enjoyment of the media.

I Feel the Need — the Need for Speed!

As I explain in a previous section (“How Much Bandwidth Is Enough?”), keeping a metaphorical eye peeled on your bandwidth is crucial, particularly when you're just getting started with this streaming stuff. But your Internet data usage won't amount to very much if your connection is too slow to stream anything. The rest of this chapter takes a close look at one of the most important streaming media metrics: your Internet connection speed.

Why does speed matter?

What's the big deal about Internet speed, anyway? Can't you stream no matter what connection you have? No, I'm afraid not. To understand why, you first need to know that the ravenous appetite that streaming media has for data applies not only cumulatively (for example, how much bandwidth you use in a month) but also in the moment. That is, even a low-quality stream stuffs data through the Internet's tubes at a rate measured in millions of bits every second!

That's a torrent of data, and many budget Internet connections just can't handle it. The result? A litany of streaming media problems, including the following:

  • You select Play for some streaming media, but the content never starts.
  • You select Play for some streaming media and the content plays eventually but takes a long time to get there.
  • Streaming media plays for a while, and then stops for a while as it gathers enough data to continue. (This is the buffering process I talked about earlier in the “More about buffering” section.) This play/buffer cycle occurs every few seconds until all your hair is pulled out in frustration.
  • Streaming media plays for a while, perhaps does the play/buffer cycle for a while, and then just stops playing and never resumes.
  • Streaming media plays, but the video or audio or both are often distorted.
  • Streaming media plays, but you get only video, only audio, or the audio and video aren't synced.

Having a too-slow Internet connection is the opposite of fun when it comes to streaming media, so don't try this at home.

How fast is fast enough?

Right, I hear you ask, I get that a too slow connection is bad for streaming, but how fast a connection do I really need? That's an excellent question, and the simplest answer is twofold.

If money is no object (lucky you!), get the fastest connection speed available. If money is very much an object (I feel your pain), get the slowest connection speed that will still enable you to stream.

Okay, I see you scratching your head over that last item, so let's break it down a bit. Basically, you need to select an Internet download speed that takes into account the following:

  • Stream video quality: The download speed has to match up with the video quality you'll be using when you stream. That is, you can get away with a slower speed if you'll be streaming everything in SD (480i). But if you want HD (1080p) or even 4K streams, you need to bump up the connection speed accordingly.
  • Live versus on-demand TV: You need a bit faster speed for live TV versus on-demand content. (4K live content doesn't exist yet, so the live versus on-demand contrast applies to only SD and HD streams.)
  • Number of devices: If multiple devices are accessing the content, you need a faster connection.
  • Glitch tolerance: The download speed has to match your own tolerance for stream glitches. That is, there's a bare minimum speed that will get the job done but at the cost of occasional midstream buffering and other problems.

Putting all this together, here's a handy table that shows you, for each stream video quality, the bare minimum speed you need, the acceptable speed for smooth streaming, and the speed required to support multiple streamers.

Video quality

Bare minimum speed

Acceptable speed

Multiple device speed

SD on-demand

3 Mbps

4 Mbps

5 Mbps

SD live

4 Mbps

5 Mbps

6 Mbps

HD on-demand

5 Mbps

8 Mbps

10 Mbps

HD live

7 Mbps

10 Mbps

12 Mbps

4K on-demand

18 Mbps

25 Mbps

40 Mbps

Testing your Internet speed

You might have signed up for an Internet account that claims a particular speed for downloads, but how can you be sure that you’re really getting that speed? Fortunately, lots of sites on the web will test your current connection speed:

  • Most ISPs offer a speed test page, so check your ISP's support site for a speed test tool.
  • Run a Google search for speed test and then click the blue Run Speed Test button (see Figure 7-6) that appears as part of the first search “result.”
    Snapshot of Searching Google for speed test and then click the Run Speed Test button.

    FIGURE 7-6: Search Google for speed test and then click the Run Speed Test button.

  • Use any of the following speed test sites:

Here are the general steps to follow:

  1. Choose a speed test site.
  2. Shut down any applications or services that might be downloading or uploading data using your Internet connection.
  3. (Optional) Reboot both your modem and your router.

    You don't have to do this if it's a hassle, but you'll get a more accurate result if you reboot both devices.

  4. (Optional) Connect your testing device to your router with an Ethernet cable.

    Yep, you can run the test over Wi-Fi, but a wired connection to the router is more stable and more accurate.

  5. Run the test.

    The test usually takes a minute or so. You can see the progress of the test in a window, as shown in Figure 7-7.

Snapshot of preliminary results are displayed while the test is running.

FIGURE 7-7: Preliminary results are displayed while the test is running.

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