Get the fattest, dumbest pipe you can find when cutting the cord

By Luke Bouma

Cutting the cord? Is your network fast enough?

Cutting the cord puts demands on your home Internet connection. A lot of the stuff that used to come to you by way of a coax cable or satellite dish now comes over the Internet instead.

People talk about the standard measurement of Internet or network speed, megabit (note: bit, not byte) like it’s supposed to mean something to most people.

If 30 megabits per second (Mbps) is good, then it stands to reason, 50 Mbps is better. 100 Mbps must be really good and when you get up to 1,000 Mbps (1 gigabit per second or 1 Gbps), you’re squarely in “amazing” territory.

1 Gbps, of the sort provided by fiber Internet access, is, dare we say, life-changing. It also isn’t available in most places yet…

Since fiber access isn’t available everywhere, most people still have to play the incumbent copper provider’s game of Pick the Megabits: trying to measure cost against Megabits which, as we sort of established, is a ruler that most people simply don’t understand (and shouldn’t have to).

We’re here to offer what help we can in picking through the options to find one that fits.

It’s like water

It’s not a perfect metaphor, but bear with us here: Think of your home Internet connection like the main water supply line coming into your home. If you have a wider diameter water supply line (plus good indoor plumbing and decent fixtures), you’re going to get higher water pressure.

If you’ve been working with low water pressure up to that point, you’ll really appreciate a nice, strong shower. Widen the pipe further and you can turn on every tap in the house, have a shower, do the laundry and water the lawn all at the same time.

Speaking specifically of water, you shouldn’t do that… but you could.

So, the fatter the main supply pipe coming in, the higher the megabit per second count on your home Internet connection.

The FCC decided to call 25 Mbps the bare minimum for an Internet connection to be considered “broadband,” so let’s consider that our baseline too.

Gigabit Internet, we’ll just mention here, is 40 times faster than this baseline.

Also, a quick mention of the “dumbest pipe” reference in the headline: Some Internet service providers (ISPs) refuse to just provide Internet service and instead, insist on piling on a bunch of “value-added” services. Things like download managers, traffic shapers, faster video buffering and streaming (by way of compression or downsampling) and the like. You don’t want any of that stuff… and net neutrality is important.

Enough of that. Let’s talk Internet speeds and feeds as they relate to cutting the cord.

Internet speed standard requirements

Netflix is by far the most popular service out there, so let’s start there. Here are Netflix officially listed minimum speed requirements:

  • 0.5 Megabits per second – Bare minimum required to connect
  • 1.5 Megabits per second – Minimum reliable connection to stream anything
  • 3.0 Megabits per second – Minimum reliable connection for SD quality
  • 5.0 Megabits per second – Minimum reliable connection for HD quality
  • 25 Megabits per second – Minimum reliable connection for Ultra HD quality

Again, these should be considered a bare minimum. While it may be technically possible to stream HD with just a 5 Mbps, it’s going to be tight… and you’re going to want to make sure no one else is using the Internet. (Source: Netflix – Internet Connection Speed Recommendations).

Amazon Instant is the second largest streaming service in the United States. Using compression, they’re able to drive these bare minimum requirements down even further:

  • 900 Kilobits per second – Minimum reliable connection for SD quality
  • 3.5 Megabits per second – Minimum reliable connection for HD quality

(Source: Amazon – System Requirements for Streaming on Your Computer).

Other services like Hulu, YouTube and the like have similar requirements for streaming to these two.

Finding your minimum speed requirements

We are going to oversimplify this a bit, but it’s a place to start for anyone who is not very technically inclined.

First, sit down and figure out what you will be using the Internet for. Do you have gamers in the house? How many streaming devices do you expect to be using the home Internet connection at the same time?

Let’s say you will have two Netflix HD streams running at the same time as Netflix while you also surf the web. Maybe somewhere else in the house, someone’s trying to have a video chat. The narrower the pipe coming into the house, the faster it’ll reach max capacity.

Bearing all that in mind, think about the minimum connection speeds as laid out by Netflix and Amazon, above. Think about the other stuff you want to do online. Figure a minimum of 1 Mbps for a workable web browsing experience. Figure a minimum of 6 Mbps for online gaming. Figure a bare minimum of 5 Mbps for a video stream. Probably about the same for a decent quality video chat. Build in some wiggle room and you’ve got the slowest connection you can probably live with.

Measuring your current Internet access speed

Another thing to bear in mind is that the download speed number a provider lists is typically on a “best effort” basis (gotta watch for those asterisks). That means they’ll try to give you the speed you pay for but you can’t get mad when they fail. Well, you can get mad… it just doesn’t change anything.

There are a bunch of other things that can affect whether you’re pulling in your promised portion of megabits from the source; Network congestion, your modem, your proximity to the node, and a wealth of others can all have an impact on your connection’s overall speed and responsiveness.

The best way to see how your home connection is performing is to run a few speed tests at different times to get a sense of what you’re really working with, on average.

The most objective test is also the ugliest and arguably, the most complicated of the bunch. It’s the Speedtest applet from DSL Reports.

Other options include speedof.me, bandwidthplace.com, and Speedtest.net (also available as a smartphone app). In all cases, watch out for the upsell and for skewed results or bias.

Conclusion

Connection speed is the most telling factor as to whether or not you’re going to have a good video streaming experience. It gets exponentially better the faster your connection is, up to a point.

My own approach was to figure out my bare minimum megabit per second requirements for my home and then double it. This puts my house in a better place when there’s congestion. It also leaves me plenty of room to do stuff using the Internet, even when someone else is streaming TV.

Ready to cut the cord with gigabit Internet service from Ting? You’re in luck if you are in one of these towns:

Centennial, CO – See if we’ve made it to your neighborhood yet.
Charlottesville, VA – Check your address for availability.
Holly Springs, NC – Check your address to see if it’s Ting-ready.
Sandpoint, ID – Pre-order to help us decide where to build our fiber network.
Westminster, MD – Check your address for a free fiber drop from the City of Westminster.

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