Friday, January 15, 2021

Understanding Network Settings for Streaming

We all use the internet in our daily lives, and once we start streaming the internet becomes even more important in what we do. But most of us don't understand much about how our internet really works, what's important about our network metrics, or why certain aspects of our internet might defy our expectations. In the earlier entry Getting Your Stream Output Settings Just Right, I helped you to calibrate the two most important internet settings when preparing a stream: resolution and bitrate. With a solid understanding of these, you'll be able to create a good looking, smoothly running stream almost every time. Unless something changes. The signal still has to reach you from your internet service provider (ISP) of course, and that can be a more mysterious subject. Do you ever suffer from fluctuating network speeds, or seem to receive worse transfer rates than the ISP advertises? In this entry, rather than talking about how to set up the stream's internet output, we'll discuss your home's internet input. I'm going to help you better understand your network settings.

It should go without saying, but this is a topic which expands far past the scope of one single entry. Understanding the way data gets transferred is an entire career in itself, and I'm not going to make you a professional in the field overnight. But there are a few points which I think are very valuable, which many streamers don't know much about. Here, we'll focus on a few very specific anecdotes which I've either struggled with in the past personally, or seen other streamers struggle with on their own journeys. By the end of this entry, hopefully you'll be a little more confident when dealing with your network speeds, and you'll better understand when the issue is simply out of your hands. 


Don't mix up these twin speeds.

First, when you think of your internet speed, make sure you're thinking about the right one. Most of the time, when selling internet packages, a service provider will heavily advertise the 'download speed' you'll get when you sign up. This makes sense, because the download speed governs what most people use the internet for every day: visiting websites, binging videos on YouTube or watching movies on Netflix. There also exists a second speed to every internet plan however, which your internet company may or may not display front and center, called the 'upload speed.' This is still used by most people, but not on as large a scale. It governs things like sending files to the cloud, posting things on social media, and anything else that moves data from your home to the internet. But even if someone regularly uploads things, they usually don't need this stat to be as consistently reliable as their download speed- after all, if the progress bar of your photo set uploading to Instagram speeds up or slows down, it doesn't make much difference in the end. But if the download speed slows down even for a second while watching Netflix, the TV show stops and you'll be noticeably inconvenienced. For this reason, the upload speed tends to be slower than (or at most equal to) the download speed. It's simply not as necessary for most people. 

But to a streamer, the upload speed is our lifeblood. I've seen many people make the mistake of thinking that both their download and upload speeds have some impact on their broadcasting capability, but this is simply not true. The only thing that affects your ability to stream is the upload speed, specifically. Download speed will affect your gameplay in multiplayer games, and it'll influence your ability to watch your own stream on your phone to check for errors, but if your stream is dropping frames or unable to go live, this is solely because of your uploading capabilities. After all, the act of streaming means you're uploading packets of data to the internet, not the other way around. 

As I've spoken about before, make sure you pay attention to what your internet service provider advertises as your plan's upload speed. You may have to go digging for it however, as the download speed is typically the number displayed more prominently. I also suggest taking 30 seconds to test your internet speed before every stream you do. This can't ensure that the internet won't dip down during the episode, but it'll at least guarantee there's nothing wrong with your connection when you start the show. And when testing speed, be careful of the big-name sites like Speedtest, as many ISPs will whitelist them to give false results, so they show your speeds faster than they really are. I suggest Google's built-in testing platform, which you can find by searching "internet speed test" right inside Google's search bar. In the past, I've done tests where Speedtest makes my internet look significantly faster than Google's test would, even though Google's was always closer to the actual speed I got from my stream software.


It's not enough to simply have a fast internet plan either. You need to figure out the most consistent speed within that plan. Every internet service provider has margins for error, even within their advertised speeds. For example, in my area of Los Angeles, Spectrum provides 10 megabits per second upload speeds. This is more than enough to stream with. But even though customers pay for 10, the company can only ever guarantee we'll get 7 Mbps at any given time. They reserve an entire 30% of that advertised speed as a massive error margin, in case there are fluctuations in service for various reasons. Now, this is understandable. I imagine it's really difficult to manage a massive, nationwide ecosystem of data service. I personally like to think of it like a bag of potato chips- most people get upset at the amount of blank space at the top of a bag of Lightly Salted Lay's, but don't realize that this "air" is in fact nitrogen gas which is necessary to keep the chips fresh. So don't think of this margin for error within your data plan as potential internet speeds you're paying for but not getting. Like with the chips, it's a much-needed blank space.

Make sure your connection doesn't cause problems.

If you can figure out your lowest guaranteed speed by calling your internet company or reading the fine print of your plan, you can plan for those speeds instead of being surprised by fluctuations later. When I do my streams, the output settings are tuned for a connection of 7 Mbps upload speed, not the 10 Mbps displayed on the plan I pay for. This means that unless there's a full service outage, my stream drops frames much more rarely than it would if I tuned the settings to the max speeds possible. As I suggest in most fields, it's better to scale back and get the right results every time, than it is to hope for the best and end up wildly inconsistent day after day. Don't forget either- just because I have 7 available megabits per second of upload speed to play with, doesn't mean that my stream outputs at 7 Mbps. It's necessary to plan for other factors as well, and you can see more about setting up your ideal stream speeds in the entry Getting Your Stream Output Settings Just Right


As a streamer, the most important thing about your internet is that it works. And for many of us, whether or not it works properly on a given day can feel totally up to chance. But most of these factors can be accounted for, as long as you know where to look. There will still be problems with your internet that you can't prevent, of course. Total network outages and blackouts are always a possibility, and planned maintenance occurs regularly, especially if you tend to stream at night. But with those events, it's easy to see the problem. Invisible service fluctuations, as well as a fundamental misunderstanding of upload and download speeds, are what keep most streamers in the dark about how their shows should be set up. Hopefully by using the concepts laid out in this entry, you can better understand your network settings for streaming. 

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