As streaming has become more and more popular - both of music, with apps like Spotify and Tidal, and with video too, with Netflix and Disney Plus, one of the challenges we sometimes face when helping our customers to get the best our of their music and movies is that the weak spot in their system is actually their home network, and especially their wireless setup.
This has been made worse with so many people now working from home, and a plethora of always on “internet of things” intelligent devices vying for bandwidth in the home.
We even see problems when working with architects and builders for extensions, new houses, or refits - it’s not unusual for the network and wireless to be afterthoughts, or to see people spec-ing system with several “wireless extenders” or a number of generic domestic hubs.
Our founder, Stephen Nelson-Smith, has been closely involved with designing and installing the network and software side of home automation for two decades, and offers us some guidelines on how to get the most out of our networks.
1. Check your current connection and upgrade options
It might sound silly, but to many people “the wireless” (remember when that meant the radio?) is synonymous with “the internet”, and they believe they have “a bad connection”, when the problem might not be their wireless connection at all. The wireless might be working perfectly, but the speeds offered by their providers might just not be up to the job being asked of it.
When considering building a system around streaming, check with your service provider and find out what speeds you are expected to be receiving into your home. A useful website you can use to check what is potentially available on the market is Fibre Compare.
The median internet speed in the UK in 2022 was 50.4Mbps. This is more than five times faster than in 2021, when the speed was 9.8. Because of the rollout of “full-fibre” broadband this year, we’ve seen a big jump in speed, but many people are still on older technology, and may not even know they can get an upgrade.
It’s also not uncommon for the service you’re getting to be nowhere near the speed advertised - this can be down to hardware faults or configuration faults - so it’s worth verifying that you are getting what you’re paying for. Use a website like Speedtest and see how your provider is performing. If you’re not getting what you’re expecting, get help from your service provider. If they can’t meet the service they offered you, maybe it’s time to change - it’s a very competitive market out there, so be prepared to shop around.
2. Understand network contention
Now you understand the theoretical best performance you can get from your service provider, and you’ve measured what you’re actually getting into your home, you need to think about how that capacity is used.
Streaming services are quite bandwidth intensive, especially at high resolution. If you’re streaming video in standard definition, you’re going to need up to about 3Mbps. If you want to stream in high definition, that goes up to about 5Mbps, and if you want to take advantage of your 4K capable TV, you’re going to need about 25Mbps sustained throughout.
Now, bear in mind that you’re probably not the only user in the house - there may be multiple people trying to stream different things at once. You may have an avid online gamer in the household, or you may have someone working from home and on video calls.
Suddenly a promised 50Mbs (if you’re on upgraded fibre connection, with perfect service) or 10Mbps if you’re still on last year’s technology doesn’t go very far.
Throw in the always-on phones, updates, fridges, power meters, smart lighting etc, and you can see that in an unmanaged state, you could quickly be using up all your network capacity without even knowing it.
Try to be mindful of who is doing what, when. In an ideal world, you’d be able to monitor and govern how your resources are used, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
3. Wired is still the best
For convenience, wireless beats wires hands down, every time. However, this convenience comes at a cost.
Wireless internet is just radio waves. Very high frequency radio waves. Just like your phone signal - depending on your environment, and how far away you are from a cell tower, you may experience degraded sound and missed words, or just lose connection altogether.
The same happens in your home. The wireless signals are blocked by walls, insulation and other things, and the signal strength drops off quickly as you move further from your wireless router. If you live close to other people, for example in a block of flats, or densely populated area, you’ll probably be able to see dozens and dozens of other people’s networks too. These are all competing for the same airwaves, and some may even be on the same frequencies, so the chance of interference is great. Often data is lost or retransmitted, and with so many other items in your home trying to communicate wirelessly, the level of reliability isn’t that stellar.
Depending on the vintage of your home network, even the most primitive of wired connections are able to deliver speeds of 100Mbps, and more modern systems 1000Mbps - so almost certainly much faster than the connection into your house. And assuming the wires aren’t damaged, and are of good quality, and the plugs and sockets are secure, the connection will be absolutely rock solid.
If you care about speed and want an uninterrupted connection, connect your devices using a wired connection. We can advise on wiring up your house, running dedicated connections, and making sure it all looks smart.
4. Check your wireless setup
Assuming you don’t want to, or cannot connect your streamer or TV directly using a wired connection, there are things you can do to maximise the performance of your wireless network.
Firstly, you need to understand that there are several standards for wireless connection, depending on the age and quality of your infrastructure. The newer standards will theoretically be as fast as the connection into your home (but not as fast as a wired connection), but again, wireless networks are subject to distance from the access point, interference from other networks, and contention. There are also technical reasons why wireless is less efficient, so in practice you’re unlikely to be able to sustain more than 20Mbps on the most common equipment, and 40-50Mbs on the very best.
Some access points have the ability to use two frequencies (2.4 and 5GHz) - depending on what else uses these frequencies in your area, and your house layout, you may get better results on one or the other. One thing you can consider doing is constraining some devices to use one frequency, and setting aside the other for the more demanding loads.
Check what equipment you’re using, and look in the manual and find out what your options are. If you’ve had the same infrastructure for a number of years, you may well find significant benefit in upgrading or replacing your router/access point.
If this is starting to sound too technical, fear not - there are people (including us) who can help you to make sure your settings are optimal. You might need to pay for a couple of hours of their time, but the payback may well be worth it.
5. Consider a mesh network
Even assuming you’re using a modern router/access point, with the latest software, and the best possible configuration, you’re still going to experience the usual set of problems endemic to all consumer-grade WiFi networks - dead spots and drop outs. Depending on your house layout and fabric, and where you are able to put your access point, this can be quite a big problem.
The issue here is, as I mentioned earlier, a streaming device in a WiFi network is just a radio. If the signal isn’t strong, the data won’t get through. And in your home there are going to be places where the signal isn’t strong.
The common solution to this is to add “extenders” throughout your house. These are devices that connect to your main connection, and publish a new network, and then literally relay everything they see to the main one. This isn’t actually as helpful as you might think, for a number of reasons, and is also a bit of a pain because you have to manage multiple network names (like NelsonSmithUp and NelsonSmithMain) and your devices might not switch when you want them to.
An alternative is to use a wireless mesh. A wireless mesh is a different concept. You instead install as many identical devices as is necessary, throughout the house, and they work together to provide excellent coverage. They all broadcast the same network name, so your devices have a seamless experience, and because all the devices are identical and designed to work together, the designers can provide intelligent features to maximise bandwidth and efficiency. They also usually come with powerful and easy to use dashboards to help you monitor and control usage, allowing you to keep an eye on who is using what, when, and put in place policies to get them out out of your network.
There are a few options on the market now, including Amazon’s Eero and Google’s Nest WiFi, but the market leader in our opinion is Ubiquiti, which is widely used in commercial settings like hotels, restaurants, and offices.
Although there’s an investment required to convert your home to a mesh network, we think it’s probably an investment well worth making. When we help people with new builds, extensions, or significant refits, this is always our go-to system.
Conclusion: Your network won’t look after itself
The takeaway from this article is simple. If streamed content is important to you - important enough that you spent several hundred pounds on a TV, maybe several hundred on a streamer - you really need to consider that without a solid network underpinning it, you may not be getting the most from your environment.
Check that you’re getting the best service possible into your home, use wired connections where possible, and check the settings on your access point to make sure you’re using the latest standards and the most effective frequencies. I would strongly advise you to consider investing in an enterprise-grade mesh network which will give you the best performance and manageability possible.