If you’re thinking about upgrading your internet you’ll really need to think about what you need. There are a lot of choices and most internet providers will try to push you to the fastest. Do you really need to pay for the top tier? Let’s take a look.
Streaming HD can take a lot out of your system, but it’s not as much of a problem as it was in years past, as internet speeds have surged in the last five years. While it once seemed impossible to get 5 megabit downloads at a reasonable price, most service providers start with 25 or 50 megabit as their lowest packages now. Is that enough? The math is actually pretty easy.
HD streams really vary in size, but are usually between 2 and 7 megabits, depending on the content provider and the level of quality they’re trying to provide. So let’s take the highest number, 7 megabits, and add one megabit for average web browsing that might take place at the same time.
This tells us that with a 25 megabit package, assuming that’s the speed you’re actually getting, you can stream three HD programs pretty comfortably. You might even get four depending on the provider. With a 50 megabit package, 6-8 streams is pretty reasonable, and if you’re up to the 100 megabit package, then all of your kids and their friends can be streaming at the same time…
…assuming you’re really getting that speed.
Internet service providers, especially cable companies, are famous for using the words “up to” when selling internet packages. “Up to 25Mbps.” “Up to 100Mbps.” Those are the words in the contract, that’s what you’re being sold. So you may be paying for “Up to 100Mbps” but if everyone else in your neighborhood is trying to stream at the same time, you might not get that speed level. You might only get 10-15Mbps as everyone else tries to catch up on the same shows you are.
That’s the nasty little secret of streaming — unlike over-the-air antenna or satellite, streaming gets worse the more people who do it. Satellite TV or terrestrial broadcasts don’t care if a million people are watching, but with a million people streaming, you need… yep, 1 million times more capacity than you need for one person. That can add up pretty quickly, and it’s also not something that’s going to change because of the on-demand nature of the internet. If it’s a true live stream there can be some economies of scale on the content provider’s side, but it still takes the same amount of bandwidth on your side.
The whole equation gets worse with 4K, where you need 20-40Mbps for each 4K stream. That means you really can’t have 25Mbps service, there isn’t quite enough “headroom” to guarantee things will work even at the lowest quality setting. Even 100Mbps isn’t enough to guarantee more than two streams per home.
But… that’s a story for another day. By the time we all start to care about 4K, we’ll probably have 1000Mbps to the home. Let’s hope!