Internet Service Providers (ISPs): Meet the New Boss

So you have your ducks in a row with whatever combination of devices and services you need to get the channels you want without the cable company’s wallet-draining contract. You’re almost there!

However, there’s one last thing that needs your attention: do you have a strong enough internet connection and home network setup to support all this streaming content? Thankfully, this isn’t as difficult a question to answer as you might think.

First Step: Calculate the Speed You Need

internet-speed

If you don’t fully understand download speeds, bandwidth, bits and bytes, here’s a very quick primer:

Videos take up space. The higher quality the video, the larger the file. When you watch something on Netflix, for instance, you are downloading the video in real time. The service stays ahead of where you are so the video doesn’t buffer (constantly starting and stopping). Again, the higher quality of video, the more data your network is trying to download every second. The faster your internet is capable of, the higher quality of video you can watch. Also, 2 or 3 people in your house all streaming video at the same time requires even higher internet speeds.

Streaming Service720p HD1080p HD4K Ultra HD
Netflix5 Mbps25 Mbps
Hulu3 Mbps6 Mbps13 Mbps
Amazon Video3.5 Mbps15 Mbps
DirecTV Now2.5 Mbps7.5 Mbps

We’d all like crazy fast internet, but location and cost are big factors. For some, 100 Mbps is available to them, while others who are a little more in the boonies may be stuck with 3 Mbps. Personally, I’m in the suburbs but near a fair amount of farmland, and it was never worth the cost to the cable company to install lines in my neighborhood. So I’m maxed out with AT&T U-Verse’s 18 Mbps.

If it’s just one or two of you in the house and you don’t think you’ll watch more than one stream simultaneously, you should be fine with at least 10 Mbps. If there’s more of you and/or you think 2 or 3 simultaneous streams are likely, you’ll want to be in the 15-25 Mbps range. Anything above that means you’ll be able to stream 4k content and handle lots of streams.

 

Second Step: Check Your Internet Speed

Fire up an internet speed calculator like this one and find out your download speed in Mbps. When you’re on wifi, where you are in your home, obstructions, and the device you’re using all play a factor in the final speed you’re getting. If you have a computer hooked up to the internet via ethernet (not wifi), this will give you the best indication if you’re getting what you’re paying for.

I’d also recommend checking the speed from various spots in your house from a laptop on wifi. You’ll notice the speed goes down a bit. This is okay and expected. To get the best internet speed throughout your house, make sure you have a good router. More on this in Step 4.

Third Step: Explore Internet Options in Your Area

Once you have an idea of what you need for internet bandwidth, the next step is to see who in your area can fulfill your data needs. In some areas, there is competition which will help drive down prices and give you an edge in negotiating for favorable monthly rates (if you are just taking the offer on the website or advertisement you could be missing out on a better deal – always pick up the phone!).

Conversely, other areas aren’t so lucky and may only have a single bandwidth provider who can fit the needs of your streaming needs. In a cruel twist of fate, you may even be stuck paying for internet service from (gasp!) your local cable company.

Regardless of the ISP situation in your area, there are some things to watch out for when signing up for internet service or adjusting your current contract:

Promotional Rates Expire

A lot of ISPs offer low introductory rates that expire at some point during your contract. Once they do, you are left with the decision to paying higher rates or eating a large fee to break your contract. Some providers offer month-to-month plans that don’t lock you into a contract, but typically you miss out on the discounts associated with a longer-term commitment.

The Grass Isn’t Always Greener

grass-is-greener

Before you jump to a new provider, assess how satisfied you are with your current ISP. If the service has been solid but you are going to need to make an adjustment to your current plan (like increasing your bandwidth), comparison shopping can still be a benefit.

More often than not, you can call your current provider and offer them the chance to either match or counter their competitor’s offer. In the end, you may be able to keep the provider you like and negotiate a better deal rather than going through the hassle of returning equipment and scheduling service calls with a new provider. Not all ISPs are created equal; if you’re happy with yours, there’s no reason not to make the effort to stick with them.

Beware of Bandwidth Caps

As more people switch to an internet-reliant lifestyle for their media content, ISPs have seen a spike in the amount of bandwidth they are pumping out to their users. Many of these companies are also players in the declining cable provider industry.

To help drive up profits (or in some cases balance out their losses), many ISPs are starting to institute bandwidth caps that charge their customers fees for going over certain data limits. These ISPs also have begun rolling out “unlimited data” plans at significantly higher rates. This is similar to the business model cell-phone providers have used for years.

Not all ISPs are going the bandwidth cap route, but it has been popping up both in the United States and worldwide more and more. Be sure you are reading the fine print of your current or prospective internet plan to ensure your new streaming lifestyle isn’t going to surprise you with a massive bill. After all, part of the joy of cord-cutting is saving money!

Fourth Step: Make Sure Internet Reaches All Devices

Even if you have all of your other bases covered, if you’re counting on the internet to bring content to your devices, you need to make sure it is actually getting there. This starts by taking a look at your router.

Most ISPs will offer you a router (and likely charge you a rental fee) as part of your internet service, while others give you the option to provide your own. If you have the option of providing your own router rather than paying to rent one, do it. This is almost always the best option.

If you are shopping for a router, there are some considerations to keep in mind to ensure you are able to stream content to your devices without hiccups:

Wired vs. Wireless Router

wired-vs-wireless-router

Unless you are lucky enough to have a home that is wired for Ethernet networking and all of your devices can take advantage of wired connections, you are likely going to need a strong wireless component to your networking plan. Given the wide range of wireless networking standards, you are going to want to choose a router that can “talk” to the widest array of devices. This means investing in a router that offers “a/b/n/ac” compatibility as well as “dual-band” signal broadcasting.

The Archer C5 and C7 models from TP-Link as well as the Nighthawk AC1750 from Netgear are solid choices for ensuring your network can not only communicate with your devices, but deliver to them a solid and steady stream of that internet bandwidth you’re paying for.

Addressing Wi-Fi Dead Spots

In some cases, even a great Wi-Fi router can’t quite reach into the depths of a basement or that corner bedroom with a strong enough signal for streaming video reliably. There are several options for solving this type of dilemma and ensuring you are casting a wide enough digital net to reach all of your wirelessly networked devices.

good-router-placement1
(good router placement)
bad-router-placement1
(bad router placement)

First and foremost, make sure your router is in the most ideal location for broadcasting throughout your home. Just like the HD antennas we discussed earlier, the quality of the signal your device receives dictates the quality of the sound and picture coming through your television. Typically, the most centrally-located position is best. The more walls and objects a signal has to travel through before reaching its destination, the weaker it gets.

wi-fi-signal-repeaters

If you don’t have the option to reposition your router (or you have but there are still dead spots), consider adding a Wi-Fi repeater or two into your network. These devices basically catch a Wi-Fi signal from your router and retransmit a boosted signal.

You will probably have the best results with repeaters made by the same company as your router, but it is certainly not a requirement. Some of these devices like the TP-Link AC750 can be found for as little as $20. Simple Wi-Fi repeaters like this can be quickly plugged into a wall outlet and set up from a computer or smartphone.

Other pricier options, like the Linksys AC1200 MAX Wi-Fi Gigabit Range Extender/Repeater offer a stronger, dual-band signal boost and speedy gigabit Ethernet ports for attaching wired devices.