Saturday, February 19, 2022

How Does Your Internet Work?

The internet is something we Twitch streamers use every time we broadcast. More than that, it’s something that all of us in the first world use for a large portion of our daily routines. Yet many of us don’t know much about all the mysterious speeds and other values associated with our internet. We don’t consider how those numbers affect our connectivity, nor how our own actions impact them. In the past entry Getting Your Stream Output Settings Just Right, I helped you to understand some of the most critical internet-related terms for a streamer, and in the follow-up entry Understanding Network Settings for Streaming, I went into more specific ideas that a streamer might need to create their shows effectively. This time, we’ll take a step back to explore some more general ideas about the internet which often cause confusion, and a few ways your household’s normal internet usage might be affecting your streams in an unexpected way. In short, we’re going to take a look at how your internet works- at least as far as we might need to know as streamers. 


Apparently, the undersea internet cables
are vulnerable to sharks and other dangers.

The first thing to understand when talking about the internet is how information gets transmitted. There are two directions that data can travel between your machine and the internet: up or down. And in order to grasp how these two directions work, you need only to think about the internet as being constantly above you.
(In a metaphorical sense, of course. In reality, the internet really lives in cables at the bottom of the ocean, but let’s forget that for the purposes of this entry.) Remember in the aforementioned earlier two entries where I talked about download and upload speeds? Those are the two main stats that always show up when you test your internet connection. And they’re the two values we’ll be using for this entry. If you think about the internet as always being above you, then it’s very easy to understand the meanings of these two transfer directions. Anything that you want to receive from the internet would need to travel downwards, meaning you’d require download speeds to do it. This would include visiting websites, watching Netflix, and many of the other things we do in our daily lives. Conversely, anything you want to send to the internet would need to travel upwards, meaning you’d need to use upload speeds. This includes sending files to the cloud, posting to Instagram, and of course, streaming. 

As I’ve mentioned in previous entries, streaming requires only upload speeds to achieve. Despite what many people believe, there is no downloading aspect used for broadcasting a livestream. At least not from your side of things. 

Make sense so far? Let’s break it down and take stock for a second with a quick exercise. Below are two hypothetical scenarios in which one of your two internet speeds are completely gone, and we’ll explore what you will and won’t be capable of doing in those situations. I’m going to use Mbps (or megabits per second) as the metric for this, which I’ve explained in detail in previous entries. For these purposes, I think you’ll get the idea either way. 

  • 0 Mbps Down / 10 Mbps Up: In this situation you’d be able to stream perfectly. However, you would not be able to watch your own stream, because that requires you to pull the stream data down from the internet to do it.

  • 10 Mbps Down / 0 Mbps Up: You would not be able to livestream at all. There is no way for your device to send data to the internet. You could however, watch Netflix, visit websites, or even watch other peoples’ livestreams, without issue. 

Okay, that’s not too complicated right? Now let’s get into a few grayer areas. 


Now that we’ve defined how the internet works for streaming in its absolute simplest form, let’s go a little deeper. There are situations in which you’ll need both speeds for your streams. As I mentioned, only upload speed is needed for your stream to be broadcast to the internet. That isn’t going to change. But depending on what kind of content you make, streaming may involve a more complex use of your network. 

If a 360 noscope happens in a match, 
but there's no internet to upload it, 
did it really happen? 

For example, if you play multiplayer games, those use both internet speeds at all times. In a Team Slayer match in Halo, you’re constantly downloading small packets of information about where the other players are, who they’re shooting at, what the score is, and all sorts of things, multiple times per second. But in order to affect the game yourself, you’re also uploading data of your own at just as constant a rate. This is on top of the data you’re using to upload your actual stream to Twitch. 


You may need to use download speeds on stream for other purposes as well, even if that speed has nothing to do with the actual process of broadcasting. Maybe you switch what you’re playing mid-stream, and your game or console needs to update. Or maybe you want to browse websites or watch videos on stream with your viewers. And of course, most of us also interact with chat during our shows. All of these things use varying levels of download speeds. They’re not related to the literal process of streaming, but they’re things you may do during your streams. 

If you’re streaming an offline singleplayer game however, or oil painting, or broadcasting your hikes, without any other bells and whistles, there is technically no download speed needed at all. 

So let’s go back to our hypothetical two scenarios and just take stock of all this information for a second: 

  • 0 Mbps Down / 10 Mbps Up - Your stream is able to go live. However, you’re not able to play multiplayer games, read chat, or browse webpages.

  • 10 Mbps Down / 0 Mbps Up - You are not able to livestream at all. You’re still not able to play multiplayer games. But you can watch other streams, read chat, download files and updates, or browse webpages.


Now, I hope you don’t run into any situations where it’s a complete 50/50, with either your download or upload speed being completely gone. This Thanos-style network decimation is not a very likely scenario, but hopefully by taking the example to its extreme you’re able to see more clearly what your various internet speeds are responsible for. And the next time you have connectivity issues, you might better understand what’s causing them. Like I’ve mentioned in previous entries, there’s a limited pool of internet speeds within every household. If your upload speeds are 10 Mbps and you stream using an output of that full 10 Mbps, you’re not leaving any room for anything else- you may notice your multiplayer game lagging, or your stream dropping frames. However, if someone on your network is downloading a huge file, it can affect the speed of your Xbox updates but will not affect your broadcast. Hopefully, by better understanding how your internet works, you’ll be equipped to face many more stream problems with a cool head. 

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