While television, as your parents knew it, remains popular in many households, the reality is that more people are streaming their content than ever before and streaming more content to more devices. In fact, as of last year, people in the United States were streaming an average of eight hours of content per day, which is nearly half of all waking hours for most people.
For the most part, people are happy with this. They have ad-free content that they can watch at their leisure and a greater selection than they would have when programming was time-locked. Yet, there are a few downsides to look at as well. One of these is the need for a good internet connection (a reasonable amount of bandwidth) to stream content easily. Unfortunately, those might not be as widespread as access to traditional television services yet, though telecommunications companies are ostensibly working on it.
Yet, how much bandwidth you need to stream the content of your choice? What differences do you need to consider? These are essential questions if only to make decisions for the future for what you buy and what services you sign up for. There is a lot of competition between internet providers and content streaming services, and none of them want to be the one that causes problems or eats up the most bandwidth.
While things may change in the future (perhaps even the near future), and some individual unforeseen factors will be at play, here is everything you need to know to answer your questions.
This can be a bit of a complicated issue. We will not be going into the technical terms of what is going on, but there are reasons why more bandwidth is needed in specific scenarios or with certain services as opposed to others. The key factors are:
Occasionally, your smart television or streaming device may need a bit more bandwidth than strictly listed to get a good connection. This stems from the fact that either wireless connections are inefficient or that you will inevitably have other processes in your home competing for the attention of your connection. It would be impossible to turn everything off and still have a working household.
While you might want to make a prediction with the information you have at hand and what you learn in this article, you should know that you cannot predict everything, and fluctuations in your connection occur even with your best efforts. Further still, the rate promised on your plan is likely only a maximum rate; you might only be getting 80 percent of that compared to your advertised speed.
Streaming a tiny cell phone video shot at a low resolution will not be as intensive as streaming that new hour-long 4k nature documentary. While we could get into the science and data behind a bit more, the simple way to put it is this: the larger the resolution, the larger the amount of data that needs to be downloaded. Furthermore, as you go up in resolution, the amount of bandwidth required to stream the content increases dramatically. Consider the following chart:
Looking at the above chart, you might either need to upgrade your internet service or lower your expectations for video quality. Whether we would recommend this depends on what you want to watch. You can also try to pre-load or buffer your content, but this might have hiccups and can take time, meaning you are watching your favorite show five minutes at a time.
Not every streaming service will run its architecture on the back end the same way, and there will be a difference between streaming services. It may have something to do with optimization or the video type used on their end, but numerous factors could impact your user experience. Yet the player and technical minutia are not why you pick a streaming service; you will likely want to watch what you want to watch (on their service).
While you cannot affect much on their back end, and if there is a problem on their end distributing content, there is little that you can do; you can try to make sure that there will not be anything going on with your end. If there is a problem on their end and your streaming has otherwise been fine (or especially if other services work), looking online can quickly give you more information. If Netflix goes down for more than a few minutes, the internet will be screaming about it.
If you just want a quick reference for your streaming service of choice, please consult the table below, as it lists recommended or minimum streaming speeds for most of the popular streaming services. If you do not see your streaming service of choice on the list below, the information is likely on their website.
There is also the matter of what device you are using to stream your content and with what connection. While you can undoubtedly use WiFi in most cases, especially if you have a decent connection, connecting with an ethernet cable is the best way to minimize interference and ensure that you are getting the most from your internet service. If you stream all your content from one stationary device, getting an ethernet cable plugged in is strongly recommended.
As far as other devices, they certainly matter as well. You can effectively bottleneck your streaming potential if you are using an older device with a poor WiFi receiver. For example, imagine using Gigabit internet with a 100 Mbps max internet receiver. You would only be getting a fraction of what you could be. Poor receivers might not work well, cut out, or not be compatible with so many devices. Investments are sometimes required for the optimal viewing experience.
If there are multiple members of your household that plan on streaming content simultaneously, you should plan for this as well. Using multiple devices obviously divides your connection, so to speak, which means that an otherwise strong connection might not be enough for everyone at once, dampening the streaming experience. However, there is no inherent issue unless the number of devices exceeds what the modem or router can handle (unlikely). Just double-check as to who is streaming what if there is a slowdown. Otherwise, there likely is not cause for concern.
There is also the matter of live streams, which unfortunately do not allow for some of the buffers of content streaming services. Whether you are using a stream from YouTube, Twitch, or one of the numerous services that allow you to effectively watch live TV, it is recommended that you have a better connection. We recommend about 8Mbps minimum depending on your resolution and what else you are doing simultaneously (many people will have a live stream and something else open at the same time, perhaps on another monitor).
For these reasons, you will need a better connection to enjoy a live stream at the same resolution as you would a video or prerecorded and uploaded content. More specifically, you need a more consistent connection. The best connection in the world is not suitable for a live stream if it cuts out for a few seconds every once in a while. With a live stream, you can also adjust the resolution (and perhaps the content you are watching does not require such a high resolution) on the fly without much difficulty. If you just want to listen in, there might be an "audio-only" mode you can use, especially on mobile devices.
For further information, we recommend checking the site or app you are using (there should be a page detailing what is required) and seeing what settings you can choose. The same rules for resolution apply for live streaming as they do for streaming pre-recorded content, and going one step down might turn a choppy stream into something acceptable.
These days, many video players and streaming services will not download the entire video or episode to your device. Instead, you might get about 10 minutes ahead, which is certainly enough for most uses and people.
As mentioned, however, if your internet is fast but has more frequent outages, especially if those outages last more than a few minutes, then streaming content of any sort might get more difficult for you. This is even worse if your streaming service of choice prefers to make sure that people are connected all the time. While there are services that allow you to download full videos, do you want to dedicate your limited storage space or data plan to that?
For this reason, when streaming, you need to consider more than just the download speed. Ensure your internet does not cut out often, and work with a reliable ISP if you can. Small outages are easy to detect and can be noticed during normal usage.
One last thing you might want to think about or check is to see whether your connection is being throttled. While ISPs might not want to talk about it, there have been reports of ISPs getting into conflicts with major streaming services before, as streaming services are responsible for a vast percentage of the bandwidth getting used at any time. This has led to the throttling of specific sites.
Alternatively, your connection might be getting throttled by your ISP because you went over a data limit for a month, or the ISP sees another reason for doing so. Check to make sure this is not the case. If you are constantly streaming content, it might be a possibility.
If you are having difficulties streaming, loading your content in a reasonably fast time, or just having internet issues in general, we recommend going by some of the following steps, in no particular order (although some fixes might be easier to try out first than others):
As you can tell, the exact answer to the title question can and will vary, but we hope that with the above information, you have a solution you can work with. We also hope that you have a service provider in your area that can supply that bandwidth. While it often is not the most intensive thing you might do with your connection, streaming TV is now a significant part of many people's lives, and knowing whether you can even do it in the first place is essential. You might need to switch providers or equipment to make it work, but regardless may you make any changes smoothly and start enjoying your content soon.