The spinning wheel of death. That’s how I refer to one of the most annoying complications associated with streaming TV: buffering.
The problem is scary enough to keep you glued to your cable TV provider, and rightfully so. After all, if you love TV, you’re not going to want to tolerate slow program load times or all-out freezes.
Thankfully, most of the streaming services out there have fixed whatever early launch glitches made them infuriating to use. These days, if there’s a problem, it probably has to do with the internet connection in your home.
So we should talk about the most common reasons causing streaming hiccups. For help, I reached out to Chris Brantner, a 35-year-old former teacher from Houston who, with his two brothers, now runs a popular cord-cutting site, CutCableToday.com.
What follows is an FAQ addressing common problems associated with your home internet setup. (Chris is also participating in our SDUT cord-cutters Facebook group, a private area where readers are encouraged to ask questions and offer up tried-and-true tips.)
By the way, regular readers of this column know that I’m helping three households cut the cord: Carol Manifold, an atypical TV viewer; the Hires who are heavy consumers of entertainment; and Randy Ward, a bona fide sports junkie.
Quick update: Carol is now cable TV-free. However, she was complaining of some buffering problems when watching live shows through CBS All Access on her Apple TV. More on that in a future column.
For now, here’s Chris tackling some frequently asked questions.
Q. Won’t standalone internet service cost too much without the cable bundle?
A. On average, internet is $10 cheaper in a bundle. Of course, some people speculate that those rates will rise over the next few years in an attempt to recover some of the losses from people who have severed TV service. Meanwhile, some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like AT&T are beginning to bundle their internet service with their streaming services — in this instance DirecTV Now.
Q. How can I save on standalone internet?
A. Compare prices with local providers and match the speed with your needs. There is no sense in having super fast internet if you don’t need it.
Q. How fast does my internet need to be for streaming?
A. For Netflix, you need a download speed of just 3Mbps (megabits per second) to stream in standard definition and 5Mbps for high definition. However, if you’re streaming in 4K ultra high definition, that may require as much as 25Mbps.
As for Sling TV, you’ll want 5Mbps or higher to stream to your TV through a device such as a Roku player, and up to 25Mbps if multiple devices in the home will be using the internet simultaneously.
Q. How can I check my internet speed?
A. Use a service like speedtest.net and make sure to test in different areas of your home.
Q. My speed is good, but streaming is buffering. Now what?
A. Typically, your Wi-Fi setup is the problem.
Here are some trouble-shooting tips:
- Make sure you have newer equipment as outdated routers can be slow. I suggest upgrading every two years.
- Locate your router in the center of your home.
- Put your router out in the open.
- Add a hardwired access point.
- Consider switching to a whole-home Wi-Fi system such as Eero, Google Wi-Fi or Amplifi with multiple access points for a wireless mesh network.
- Disconnect unused devices that could be using up bandwidth.
- Change frequency channels as sometimes interference can be an issue in crowded areas. You can change channels, or most new routers will choose the best when you reboot. If you have a dual band router, try enabling both 2.4GHz and 5GHz.
Q. Can I get rid of broadband internet altogether and just use my phone for internet?
A. Not exactly. While certain wireless carriers — take AT&T and T-Mobile — will offer free data for streaming certain services, the catch is that you can’t use your phone to tether to a streaming stick or box without incurring data usage. Even if you could find a workaround, you’ll still find that the video is streamed at a lower resolution. So while it might look good on a phone, the video will look poorly on your television set.
Basically, if streaming is a part of your cord-cutting setup, you probably shouldn’t get rid of broadband internet. However, if you get the content you need from an antenna and aren’t looking to stream much, wireless internet could handle your email and Facebook needs.
Q. Should I use my own modem/router?
A. That depends. On one hand, you’ll save money on monthly rental fees. On the other, you need to be a bit tech savvy because you might not get support from your ISP should problems arise. Also, keep in mind that you have to buy a modem and router that are compatible with your ISP.
The TV tipping point: Where do we go from here?
A beginner’s guide to cutting the cord
An intro to streaming sticks and boxes
Can you live without cable TV for a week?
Cord-cutters who love sports not totally out of luck
An overview of your cable TV alternatives
Your cord-cutting questions answered
We’re helping 3 people cut the cord