There’s no bigger buzzkill when streaming video than an interruption for buffering or encountering other buffering problems.
There are a lot of misconceptions in the wireless world about what buffering is and what causes it, how to minimize, and help prevent it. Buffering is caused by some sort of “bottleneck” in your connection to the Internet. As the popularity of smart TVs and other video streaming devices has increased, some issues have emerged.
To understand buffering, we first need to know what happens with the communication of wireless devices. As an example, if you want to watch a video on your smart TV at home from a streaming service (i.e. Netflix, Hulu, etc.) you make a “request” to that service. That service establishes a connection with your smart device and the video starts. Your smart device and the streaming service need to be in constant contact to keep the video flowing. There is a constant stream of sending and receiving information taking place. Obviously having a fast connection between your home and those services is important. That connection is called your Internet Service Provider or ISP (i.e. Spectrum, AT&T, Google Fiber, etc.). The ISP is only the connection from the modem to the Internet. What about the connection from your Smart Devices to the Modem? This connection can be accomplished in one of two ways: 1) A Hardwired Connection like an ethernet cable plugging directly into your smart device or 2) Wirelessly via WiFi.
What causes buffering while streaming?
The causes for buffering are actually very simple. People will come up with all types of theories as to why buffering is happening when you are trying to stream your favorite show, a movie or a sporting event, but there are basically only a few variables that will cause delays in connectivity.
Most internet companies have been working diligently on increasing internet speeds by adding infrastructure to support the need for faster speeds and that takes time. There has also been a great improvement in over the air data speeds provided by cell phone companies, as well as server capacity of streaming service. Consumers have been looking for easier and faster ways to access their data and entertainment needs.
Today’s speeds are well above what is actually needed in any home. Here is an example:
- Your local ISP offers 300MB Internet service. That means you get up to 300MB at a time of download speeds
- An HD movie on a streaming service will use about 20MB of download max
- With this math you should be able to watch about 15 HD movies at the same time in your home before buffering starts to occur
HOWEVER, this would only hold true if all of your Smart TVs and/ or streaming devices were located right next to your modem from your ISP and plugged directly into the modem. In reality our smart devices are all over our house and many aren’t plugged directly into the Internet.
WiFi speed and capability
Since our smart devices aren’t all located right next to the modem from our ISP, and many times it’s not feasible to have everything hardwired, then we have to rely on WiFi to connect our smart devices to the internet.
A robust and well planned WiFi network will greatly increase your ability to connect to the internet minimizing buffering issues.
WiFi signals can be affected by obstructions such as walls and distance from the smart devices to the nearest WiFi access point (commonly but errantly called a “router”.). Many consumers are under the impression that if their device is connected to their WiFi network, they will get the exact speeds that they subscribe to from their ISP. This isn’t true and isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Again, your ISP provides the Internet to your house at an advertised speed (i.e. 300MB). This needs to be shared by ALL of your smart devices, and as we talked about earlier, it only takes about 20MB to watch an HD movie. Why does any smart device really need more than 20MB going to it? It doesn’t. People get very worried about how fast their speeds are. Let’s share that “300MB” with all of the devices in your home. It is MUCH more important that everything gets to the Internet, right?
Every smart device you have in your home needs to be online all of the time. Let’s think of the things you may have in your home that want to be online all of the time:
- Smart Phones
- Gaming systems
- Smart Home Items – Doorbells, Thermostats, Cameras, Security Systems, Smart Lighting
- Smart assistants (i.e. Alexa, Google Home, Apple Home Pod, etc.)
Your WiFi system and infrastructure needs to be able to talk to all of these items ALL of the time. For example, your Smart Doorbell needs to be online all of the time, even if someone isn’t at your door. It needs to be ready for when someone is or to transmit video of a person walking up to your door.
One reason that will influence your streaming speeds and cause buffering is multiple devices connected at the same time using the bandwidth, so you need to make sure to have enough speed to support usage of many devices.
Once you have enough internet speed to support connectivity to all of your devices, the next step is your router. A router is the device that will read and transmit data from the internet to your devices creating a wired or WiFi connection. We cannot stress enough how important the router plus a quality connection are to minimize buffering. This is part of the process we can control. Most over the counter routers are good enough to provide a basic connection but limited on range and the number of devices it can serve at the same time.
There are many products to help extend and increase range of a WiFi network, such as WAPs (Wireless Access Points), extenders/boosters and mesh network devices. While each product has their pros and cons, the preferred method for a state-of-the-art network that will be capable of working seamlessly and efficiently is the use of WAPs. Good WAPs need a wired connection back to the router, they are placed strategically throughout the home creating a WiFi dome providing a quality connection anywhere in the home.
Another benefit of using access points, the fact that they can connect to multiple devices simultaneously, think of it as a toll lane, while a router will connect to one device at a time, a WAP will handle multiple connections. That by itself will help eliminate buffering. In today’s world a typical household has well over 10 devices connected to their WiFi network at any time, devices such as smart TVs, phones, tablets, computers, smart lighting, security systems, smart doorbells, smart thermostats, wireless cameras and more. Access points require a wired connection, contact a local technician to design a tailored system for you.
If your ISP is doing their job providing you your Internet connection and you have a well-planned out and executed WiFI infrastructure throughout your home, then the only other part to the equation is where the content you are requesting is coming from.
Streaming services store their data in servers. Think of servers as online libraries where the content is housed and once you connect it will transfer data over the internet to your modem.
We as final consumers have no control over the server speeds and how much bandwidth it can support.
Servers are not cheap to buy, rent or operate. Streams come from all over the world. Some are from multi-billion-dollar companies with massive data centers. Some are from smaller operations and some come from free public servers that limit amounts of data and speeds. The long story short is that sometimes servers get overloaded, fail or go down.
Let’s recap to summarize what causes buffering and how to minimize it:
What causes buffering?
- Slow internet speed or issues with your ISP and their modem.
- WIFi signal being weak and/or degraded by distance or having to go through walls or other obstacles. A poorly designed WiFi network will suffer from these as well as other issues.
- The stream sources server being overloaded with too many users
- The stream sources server having internet issues
- Your internet provider having fluctuations in their internet service
How to minimize buffering while streaming
- Have enough bandwidth available getting to every device within your home.
- Hardwire your unit directly to the internet via an Ethernet cable
- Upgrade your router and WiFi infrastructure
- Pause a stream for a minute or two to allow it to build up some data
Some of the above you can control, like your WiFi network and which ISP you choose, but some are out of your control such as streaming services having issues with their servers.
Our recommendation is to:
- Make good decisions on which ISP to use, although most of them offer MORE than enough incoming internet to service all of your devices
- Make sure the WiFi infrastructure in your home covers your entire home
- Make sure the equipment you use can talk to multiple wireless smart devices at the same time
- Most store bought WiFi systems are only capable of talking to one item at a time. It is VERY important to make sure you work with a company that specializes in design and implementation of WiFi.