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How to size your Internet connection

So I understand ISPs are upselling connection speeds saying it’ll make Netflix work better. That’s a nice theory. But if you’re already over 10 megabits, there’s a decent chance your connection speed won’t do much for Netflix at all. Here’s how to size your Internet connection.

You see, a Netflix stream consumes about 3.5 megabits on average. Netflix lets you stream to three screens at a time by default. That means a typical Netflix connection will consume a little over 10 megs. If you’re using your three-screen limit, that is.

That said, last October I was streaming baseball every night while my kids streamed Youtube almost non-stop, on a bottom-of-the-barrel 3-megabit AT&T U-Verse connection. It was better than it sounds. I had some hiccups but for the most part it worked. I finally upgraded to 6 megabits last month.

What about 4K video? More on that in a minute.

To size your Internet connection, multiply the number of simultaneous HDTV streams you use at peak times by 3.5 megabits. If you want to be safe, round up to the next closest speed your ISP offers. But you might want to try rounding down, then come back for more speed the next month if the streams still hiccup. Regular web surfing doesn’t typically add much to that overhead. If you’re concerned about that, add another megabit or two.

Online gaming’s use of the Internet connection varies. Generally it will be somewhere between that of web surfing and streaming video. If you want to be safe, add a couple of megabits for any game console you have in the house.

If your total is less than 20 megabits and you’re surprised, don’t be.

What if the math says your Internet connection is fast enough and your video hiccups? Your router may have packet errors. Here’s how to fix packet errors. Or you may need a new router.

There’s a free utility called TCP Optimizer that certainly helps PCs get more out of whatever Internet connection speed you have, but it won’t help non-PC devices like Macs or game consoles or Roku boxes.

The web itself is a lot more responsive at high speeds, so don’t feel bad if you have a 20 megabit connection and you only stream video to one or two screens. But if you’re paying a lot of money for a 75-megabit connection and you’re wondering if you can cut back a bit to save money, the answer probably is yes.

If you’re shopping around for Internet service, I can only speak from experience with two large ISPs. But you may be interested in my experience with AT&T vs. Spectrum.

What about 4K video?

Ah, 4K video is the rub. 4K is much more demanding than standard HD. A 4K video stream needs about 20 megabits. So if you’re going to stream 4K video, add about 20 megabits per stream to whatever else you calculated here.

As more 4K content becomes available, demand for 100-megabit Internet connections is going to increase.

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