Have you ever installed broadband and a homeowner starts to quiz you on topics like streaming content? These days, consumers are turning to the Internet to satisfy all of their entertainment needs. With a dizzying amount of programming choices and just as many technical factors, today’s broadband installer needs to understand streaming.
As high speed broadband Internet enters more homes it brings with it a whole new way to watch TV and listen to music. In the past, complete video or audio files were downloaded onto computers to be watched later. The download time was often quite lengthy and the file size, especially for video, was immense making storage an issue. Increases in broadband speed have shortened the time it takes to download large files but have also enabled a better way to view or listen to content.
Receiving data in real time or streaming, as it’s known, has many advantages over downloading files. Data is continually transmitted and can be accessed immediately, which means no waiting around for giant files to download. It is mostly used for video and audio but has also been adapted to streaming games and apps to devices with data limits like smartphones.
Streaming runs into problems on slow Internet connections or when there are interruptions in service. The data has to be able to stream fast enough to keep up with the speed of playback and span any short breaks in transmission. To avoid pauses in playback most programs use buffering where unused data that has already been received is stored until needed. But if the connection is too slow the buffer will empty and the dreaded “buffering” message will be displayed until the data flow catches up.
To get around these problems it is necessary to reduce the amount of data needed to send the stream. This is called compression, also known as bit-rate reduction. There are many types of compression but they all involve encoding the signal at the source and then decoding it at the receiving end. This reduces the number of bits of data needed but also requires more processing. So, the type of compression used is a trade-off between signal quality, size and time it takes to decode the signal.
The demand streaming has put on Internet connections have been steadily increasing with the quality of the content. Video resolutions have gone from the old standard 640 x 480 pixels to the new 4K or Ultra HD standard, which are 3840 x 2160 pixels. Even with compression and buffering this means conventional broadband may not be able to cope with multiple streams. Fiber to the home (FTTH) is one answer for customers but requires upgrading of equipment and enclosures.
Finding content to stream is easy. There are literally thousands of Internet radio stations webcasting every conceivable type of music or commentary. All that’s needed for this is a web browser and some speakers. There’s also music streaming services that allow you to choose the music you want to hear when you want to hear it. Examples include Spotify, which comes with either a free version that includes commercials or the subscription-only premium service, as well as the recently launched Apple Music, which works in conjunction with iTunes.
There are also many sources for video streaming that are free. YouTube is probably the best known but is geared to sharing fairly short videos uploaded by subscribers. To see full length movies and TV shows services like Netflix charge a monthly subscription for access to their huge catalog of videos as well as their own content.
Traditional broadcast TV stations are also getting in on the act. Many networks are now offering original TV shows in their entirety for streaming from their websites. There is usually no cost but you do have to put up with commercials, although they are much shorter than you would experience on conventional TV.