Broadband for streaming

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Guide to broadband for streaming

Key points

  • You can stream audio and video online using websites and apps
  • Streaming is different to downloading - you can access downloaded files offline, but you'll need an internet connection to stream
  • Fast broadband is recommended for streaming, particularly if multiple people are using the same connection or the files are in high definition

Streaming has become one of the most popular ways to enjoy audio and video-based entertainment.

While CD and DVD sales continue to fall, streaming is at an all-time high, with digital services overtaking physical copies for the first time in 2016, according to the Entertainment Retailers Association.   

Streaming also happens to be one of the most demanding tasks for our home broadband connections, with many internet users experiencing slow loading times as a result.

Here's everything you need to know in order to enjoy streaming your favourite songs and videos with minimal pesky interruptions.

What is streaming?

Streaming means watching or listening to multimedia online in real time.

There are several different ways to stream online content. You can visit a website: one of the most popular examples being YouTube.Image of a woman looking at a tablet

Another example is SoundCloud, which allows users to share and listen to recorded sounds, including songs, podcasts and other audio files.

Then there are apps: Netflix and Spotify head up the pack as leading apps for streaming TV shows and music respectively.

Unlike web-based streaming services, apps are downloaded to your device in order to access the video or audio content within them. You often have to pay a subscription to use them, although some apps offer free versions funded by adverts, for instance All 4 and ITV Player.

Streaming versus downloading

The big difference between streaming and downloading is to do with how your media is accessed. You need an internet connection to stream online content, as it's stored on a remote internet server, not your device.

You don't need an internet connection to access downloaded content, as it'll have already been transferred from the internet server to your device. However, you'll need an internet connection when downloading the file initially and if you have a slow connection it'll take longer.

One of the reasons why streaming has become so popular is the increased availability of high-speed broadband, as well as popular programmes being made exclusively for streaming services, for instance Netflix original shows and films.

Back when slow dial-up connections were the norm (the good old days), it would have taken hours to load a feature-length film in its entirety, if at all.

Today's internet service providers (ISPs) offer broadband connections that are several hundred times faster, allowing long video and audio clips to be loaded and accessed in an instant. You can even stream multimedia without a broadband connection, due to the widespread availability of fast 3G and 4G internet on our mobile devices but beware of data limits, as you may be charged if you exceed them.

Speeds as low as 2Mbps allow you to watch standard definition content on services such as BBC iPlayer and Netflix

There are still some situations where downloading is preferable to streaming. If you're going away on a trip where you know that internet access will be scarce, downloading your multimedia before you go will ensure that you can access your favourite songs and shows on the go. Farewell to boredom on long haul flights!

Downloading content to your device while connected to broadband will also save you from having to use your mobile data plan to stream it. Streaming online multimedia is notorious for using a large amount of data, so you may find yourself hitting your mobile contract's monthly limit before you're able to finish the film you're watching. Which can mean extra charges and nobody wants that.

Do you need a TV licence for streaming?

If you plan on using your device to stream television programmes as they're being broadcast (also known as livestreaming), then you're legally required to buy a TV licence. Watching programmes on BBC iPlayer is also illegal unless you have a TV licence, even if you're watching them after they've been broadcast.

Other on demand services (such as Netflix, Amazon Video, All 4 and YouTube) don't require you to have a TV licence.

How to avoid buffering

The most common issue that people encounter when streaming is having to wait for their content to load, or 'buffer'. Long buffering times can put a dampener on your enjoyment of a song or video, interrupting your experience with prolonged pauses and annoying audiovisual stuttering.

While slow buffering can sometimes be due to busy servers or technical problems, it's usually explained by insufficient broadband speed. Multimedia files are large, which means they need a fast internet connection to load quickly, or it can drag on for hours.

The more megabits per second (Mbps) your broadband offers, the faster your content should load, allowing you to watch or listen without interruption.

So, if you plan on using your broadband for streaming, choose a plan that offers sufficient download speeds to avoid prolonged buffering.

Remember that advertised speed can differ wildly to the actual speed you receive. The top speed will be outlined on your broadband package but this doesn't mean that your connection will reach this on an average day.

Broadband you need for streaming

Occasional streamers don't necessarily need superfast broadband in order to enjoy music, TV shows and films online.

Speeds as low as 2.8Mbps allow you to watch standard definition content on services such as BBC iPlayer and Netflix. However, to get the most from streaming, you'll want to invest in something quicker.

Some video streaming platforms offer their programmes in Ultra HD, enhancing your viewing experience with better image quality. This increased quality requires faster download speeds - for example, Netflix recommends at least 5Mbps for HD and 25Mbps for Ultra HD programmes.

If you live in a house where multiple people are streaming content at the same time, a faster broadband speed will also benefit you. The more people streaming at once, the slower your content will load. But the faster your broadband is, the less time you'll all have to wait.

So how many Mbps will you need? If you're an occasional streamer, look for broadband packages offering between 10 and 25Mbps. If you're a regular streamer, or live in a house where others may be streaming at the same time as you, a superfast service of between 25 and 100Mbps should be sufficient to keep everyone happy.

By Matt Ayres