Most Home Theater setups these days will include one or more methods for playing "Streamed" content. For example, playing movies from Netflix, or music from Spotify. Or even for playing your own media files -- streamed over your house network from a Network Accessible Storage (NAS) device or home computer. The convenience of such streaming services can quickly turn into exasperation, however, if you discover your network speeds are not up to the task! Playback may revert to lower quality, or may stall altogether as your system repeatedly tries to "re-buffer" enough content to continue going.
In this post we'll discuss practical troubleshooting steps when somebody shuts off the tap, and your streaming turns into a trickle!
Let's start with the big picture: How this all fits together.
A commercial content streaming service like Netflix stores its content in "Server Farms" scattered all over the world, and usually owned by some 3rd party. For example, Amazon (yes, the same people you buy things from) is a major player in selling such server capacity to businesses of all types. These server farms connect to the Internet via "Backbone" facilities (also called "Tier 1 Networks") owned by companies you've likely never heard of, such as Level 3 Communications. The Internet works because all these Backbone companies interconnect and interoperate. So a server farm connected to any one of them can still be accessed by someone who is reaching the Internet via an entirely different one. Such as you.
Your house Internet service is provided to you by your "Internet Service Provider" (ISP) -- one of the very few pieces of nomenclature in all this which is intuitively obvious! Your ISP might also be your cable TV service provider (as with Comcast), or your telephone service provider (as with Verizon), or someone who is just in the business of selling Internet access. Your ISP also connects to the Internet Backbone at some point in their facilities, and that's how you can reach a Netflix server farm.
When you launch your Netflix application, one of the first things it does is try to figure out where you are in the world (and on the Internet Backbone), and which of their server farms can best deliver content to you at attractive speeds. But to do THAT, the Netflix app has to be able to reach out to your ISP and communicate. And THAT'S the job of your in-house network.
Your in-house network begins at the point the networking feed line from your ISP attaches to a gateway device which knows how to do networking with your ISP. Usually this is a small box provided by the ISP when you have your Internet service installed. But you might also have bought this yourself to avoid paying monthly box rental to your ISP. The gateway device may have several features bundled in, or it may be a simpler than that -- with the expectation you will attach additional devices to it for those extra features.
At its simplest, the gateway device functions as an Internet Modem. This is a gadget which knows the trick of operating on your ISP's specific type of network and which presents your entire house network to the world as a single Internet Protocol (IP) address -- known as your Wide Area Network (WAN) address. Everything you do on the Internet will come from, and return to, that WAN IP address.
Such a connection is simple, but not particularly useful. For example, it does not differentiate between different devices you might want to have on the Internet at the same time -- such as the Netflix app in your TV, and the email app in your home computer.
That next level of functionality is provided by your "Router". The Router may be a separate box, or it may be built into the particular gateway device you got from your ISP (along with the modem). Your Router creates a Local Area Network (LAN) inside your house, and enables devices on the LAN to communicate with the outside world -- the WAN -- as needed. Devices on the LAN can also communicate with each other. And such in-house network traffic never touches the Internet (not even that part of it which is provided by your ISP).
To do that, the Router creates in-house (LAN) IP addresses for each device you have connected, and handles the necessary address translation so that ALL of those device can talk to the Internet via the house network's single, WAN IP address without getting in each other's way.
The in-house side of the Router connects to your devices via one or more Ethernet cables plugged into its Ethernet sockets. These look much like the sort of sockets you find on a wall outlet for plugging in a modern telephone, only with a few more wires. If your Router is a separate device -- i.e., not built into your gateway device along with its modem -- then the connection between that modem and the Router is also an Ethernet cable. So a standalone Router like this will have one WAN Ethernet socket (which you use to connect to the modem) and one or more LAN Ethernet sockets (which you use connect to your devices).
Your modem is best thought of as a potato with a power cord. What goes on inside the modem is not something you can see or adjust. All of its configuration is handled (remotely) by your ISP, each time it powers up. This includes installing firmware updates in it as necessary. So there are no settings in the modem itself, which you will be able to adjust. All you can do if the modem is unhappy is to unplug it and then plug it back in again so it will reboot and start up afresh. Indeed your ISP can likely do this remotely when you call them about a problem with your networking.
The ROUTER, on the other hand, has settings which you may VERY WELL want to adjust. We'll talk about some of those in a bit. If your Router is built into your gateway device (along with its modem) just understand the various settings you will be able to see and adjust are for the Router portion of the gateway device. I.e., they control how the Router manages the in-house side of your network -- the LAN.
The Ethernet wiring in your house may be simple or complex. At its simplest, you would have one device each, connected directly to each of the LAN Ethernet sockets offered by your Router. If you have more devices than sockets, you can use Ethernet "Hub" or "Switch" devices to fan out one Ethernet cable into multiple sockets. Which you can then use to attach your extra devices, or even additional Hubs and Switches.
Another popular method of creating an in-house network is to use wireless, radio networking or Wifi.
MARKETING NOTE: Wi-Fi, spelled that way, is actually a trademark of the Wi-Fi Alliance dating back to 1999. It is a made up name, not actually meaning anything. The marketing firm which came up with the name has been quoted as saying they were just trying to make a pun on "hi-fi" as in "hi-fi stereo equipment". AFTER the name was invented, the Wi-Fi Alliance tried for a while to post-define it as standing for "Wireless Fidelity". But since that was an instant head-scratcher, they soon gave up.
To do this, you need at least one Wifi "Base Station" -- basically the radio device which sets up the Wifi networking. And one of these may ALSO be bundled into your ISP's gateway device! If so, the gateway device will have settings for its Wifi, in addition to settings for its included Router. If not, you will have a separate box -- your Wifi Base Station -- which you connect to your Router on one of its LAN Ethernet sockets (or perhaps via a Hub or Switch feeding to the Router).
(There are even Wifi Base Stations which can also do duty as your Router. Typically these will have a setting for whether the Base Station should act as the Router for your in-house network, or defer to another Router to which you cable it.)
One Wifi Base Station can support MULTIPLE Wifi networking devices -- over a limited distance. If necessary you can have multiple Wifi Base Stations. These may act as radio extensions of your starting Base Station, or they might be separately connected (via Ethernet) to your Router and provide SEPARATE Wifi networks within your house. Your Wifi-equipped devices find a given Wifi network by name, and usually also need to provide password-based security to make sure neighbors and such can't connect to your Wifi. Having BOTH Ethernet and Wifi connected devices on the same house network is commonplace.
So your LAN -- the in-house portion of your networking -- will consist of a modem, a Router, ethernet distribution boxes like Hubs and Switches, Wifi Base Stations, and, of course, the actual devices you want to use on the network, such as your TV with its Netflix app, or your computer, or your smart phone.
Your Router acts as the traffic cop; making sure communications get to and from the correct devices in your house network. To do that, the Router creates in-house (LAN) IP addresses -- one for each of your devices. If a given device wants to send or receive network traffic over the Internet, your Router deals with the necessary address translation.
There are, thus, two networking speeds which come into play. First is the Internet service speed provided by your ISP: Pay more for more speed. Typically these days you will be offered a download speed (data coming into your house) which is quite a bit higher than your upload speed (data going out to the Internet). When using streaming services like Netflix, the download speed is the one that matters. Speeds offered vary by ISP and your location, but may be as low as 10 million bits per second (10 Mbps) or as high as 1000 Mbps (1 Gbps). A service like Netflix will usually recommend a minimum speed of service for a given quality of streaming. For example, at least 15Mbps or 50Mbps depending on the quality of video you want to watch.
The first thing to know is that there's A LOT which goes into the ACTUAL Internet speed you get. Just because you are paying for 50Mbps download speed, for example, does not necessarily mean that's the speed your Netflix app will ACTUALLY have to work with. More on that in a bit.
The second networking speed, then, is the speed of your in-house network. USUALLY your in-house network will be FASTER than your Internet service. That is, if things are functioning correctly inside your house, the in-house network will NOT be the source of problems. Ethernet transmissions within the house network may be up to 1 Gbps. Wifi transmissions be up to a few hundred Mbps.
But when things go wrong in the in-house network, they often go wrong in a big way! There are faults which can slow your in-house networking to a crawl!
And so one of the first things you'll want to figure out is whether your problem is inside the house or out on the Internet!
If you are having problems with in-house streaming -- i.e., playing files stored on your own, in-house media server -- you know, of course, the problem is in-house. And we'll get to steps there in a bit.
But if you are are having problems with an Internet service, such as Netflix, you'll need to start by ruling out problems at the Netflix end. A good way to start is to check on some websites that monitor the performance of popular services. These websites do their own monitoring, and also collect reports from users of the services. And they are free.
For example, here's a link to the Netflix monitoring page at DownRightNow.com. This will give you a time line of recent problems, so you can check whether a problem appears to be getting worse or better.
And here's a link to the Netflix monitoring page at DownDetector.com. This site offers another useful view, which is an outage map, showing the geographical spread of problem reports. Here's the DownDetector Map page for Netflix.
(These monitoring sites provide the same sort of info for all the popular Internet services. See each of them for how get the same sort of status on whichever service you need to check.)
Typically, localized problems with an Internet streaming service will reflect over-demand on the server farm serving that area. For example, this is more likely to happen during prime time viewing hours. Wait a bit, and the problems often just go away. Sometimes the over-demand is across all content. But occasionally the over-demand is for a particular program -- e.g., the season finale of a popular series.
More widespread outages typically mean something has gone wrong between the Internet streaming service and the Backbone provider it is using for connections. Although these may look more nasty, it is often the case that these problems go away even faster. Backbone providers have substantial redundancy built into their systems, and sometimes just have to do some on-the-fly reconfiguration to get things back to normal.
More rarely, an entire server farm or Backbone service may truly fail. These are the sorts of failures that make it into the News!
The next most likely place for out-of-house slowdowns is in the service provided to you by your own ISP. This may be due to capacity issues in the ISP's own facilities, or a problem in your ISP's connection to the Backbone service it relies on.
This sort of failure will typically affect ALL your Internet activity -- across all streaming services and even access to normal websites. To see if this is what's going on, it is useful to track the normal performance of your ISP. That is, how are they actually doing compared to the speed you are paying for.
A useful --and free -- test site for this is operated by a news website, focussed on the Internet industry, called DSLReports. Here's a link to the DSLReports Speed Test. This test uses a feature of modern web browsers called HTML 5 to support high speed tests -- AND without having to compromise the security of your computer by installing the justly-infamous, Adobe Flash software!
This speed test goes out and checks speed simultaneously from various speed test servers which have been set up around the world, by cooperating organizations, for just such purposes.
The key to using a speed test like this is to try it periodically, at different times of the day, to get a feel for how your Internet service works NORMALLY. Then, if you have a problem, you can try it and see if your service speed is still performing normally or not. If it IS performing normally, that's additional evidence the problem you are having is due to issues AT the streaming service company (e.g., Netflix). If it is NOT performing normally, however, you still have more checking to do. Because of course the speed test run by that site also depends on the performance of your in-house network. And if THAT'S failing, then the speed test will also show problems.
If you happen to have an in-house server set up for streaming media files, one good test would be to see if THAT is performing normally. The connection between your in-house server and your media player does not use the Internet of course, so if the DSLReports speed test comes back slower than normal, but your in-house streaming is working just fine, that's evidence the problem is with your Internet Service Provider. Check their Support website (assuming you can reach it), or call them, to see if they are already aware of a service outage affecting your area.
Typically, your ISP's Support team can also run a service check on your account which tests the speed and connection quality through to your modem (in the gateway device). This is another quick way to confirm if the problem is external to your house.
It's useful to know if the source of your problems is outside your house of course, so you don't waste time trying to fix a non-existent problem INSIDE your house. But there's not much you can actually DO about problems out on the Internet -- except be patient.
So let's shift our focus back inside the house, and talk about things you CAN fix!
Wifi connections are more subject to slowdowns than Ethernet connections in your house network. Indeed the Rule of Thumb for setting up your most speed-critical connections is to always use Ethernet when you can manage.
If your speed problem is on a Wifi connection, one useful test, if possible with the devices involved, is to switch, even temporarily, to an Ethernet connection. If the problem goes away, you know to focus on your Wifi setup.
Wifi Base Stations originally operated in the 2.4 GHz radio band. Newer Base Stations offered the 5 GHz radio band (but only to Wifi devices which also supported that band), and it is pretty common these days to find Base Stations which let you set up your Wifi on either Band, or even to set up two DISTINCT Wifi services (with different names) -- one on each band.
The 2.4 GHz band works over longer distances but is inherently slower, and more subject to external interference. The 5 GHz band is faster and less likely to be subject to interference, but doesn't extend as far. The extension of EITHER band will be reduced when the radio signal has to go through walls or floors.
Each Wifi band supports multiple "Channels" -- a differing set of frequencies within the band. So a given Wifi setup will operate on a specific Channel of one of the two bands. Wifi devices, as I've mentioned, find your Wifi network by name. I won't go into the details of that, except to say that the Wifi device will automatically attach to the correct band and channel when it makes the connection to the Wifi Base Station. Even if you CHANGE the Channel your Wifi Base Station is using, the connected Wifi devices will detect that and follow it to the new Channel.
In addition to bands and channels, Wifi hardware supports different protocols -- with faster speeds associated with the newer protocols. Protocols rejoice in names like "802.11ac", which is the fastest commonly available at the moment. But for a fast protocol to be used, both the Base Station and the Wifi-capaable device must support it! So there is constant upgrade pressure to make sure your Wifi Base Stations support the best your Wifi devices can handle, and that you get Wifi devices that support the best your Base Station can provide.
So the first thought when the speed problem involves Wifi is SHOULD this be able to run fast? Do both devices support the 5 GHz band? Are you actually connecting the device to a 5 GHz Wifi you've set up in the Base Station? Do both the device and the Base Station support one of the faster protocols?
The NEXT thought should be whether your Wifi layout is capable of supporting high speed. I've mentioned distance as a factor. As the distance increases, the Wifi radio signal gets weaker, there's more noise to contend with, and the speed of the connection drops. The ideal solution, of course, is to place your Base Station closer to speed critical devices. Another approach is to "extend" the Wifi. The older method of extension involved using what was basically an additional Wifi Base Station as a repeater. You would place it close enough to the original Base Station to have good signal strength (speed) and you would place your Wifi device close enough to the repeater to also have good signal strength. But the way Wifi works means that extending a Wifi network with repeaters comes with a built in price. For example if you are using one repeater, it is not uncommon that the BEST Wifi speed you can get is 1/2 the best you could have gotten with a device placed close to the original Base Station.
The newest technology in Wifi gets around this by setting up so-called, "mesh networks". This involves special hardware in each Base Station -- meaning you will likely need to get all your Base Stations from the same company.
In addition to distance-related speed problems, Wifi is also subject to external interference. This is particularly true for the 2.4 GHz band. Interference can come from things like microwave ovens or cordless extension telephones for your regular, land line, telephone service. If you have Wifi problems which seem to last only a short while, it is useful to try to note what OTHER devices are in use in your house when the problem occurs.
Wifi is ALSO subject to interference from neighboring Wifi setups! Typically, a Base Station will sample what's going on in its radio band when it powers up, and then it will automatically select a channel which has the least interference from neighboring Wifi setups. But of course that can vary as your neighbors come home and perhaps turn on their Wifi devices!
Usually a Base Station will let you pre-select which channel it should use. If your problems appear to be due to interference from neighboring Wifi setups, or even from radio-noisy devices in your house (like microwave ovens), it is often possible to get around the problem simply by switching your Base Station to a different channel from the one it picked on its own.
I mentioned a moment ago the Rule of Thumb is to always use Ethernet for speed critical connections in your in-house network. But sometimes you may find just the OPPOSITE holds true!
That is, sometimes you may find a Wifi connection is FASTER than an Ethernet connection!
This is actually a symptom of a problem in your Ethernet setup. I mentioned a moment ago that Wifi Base Stations evolved to support different connection speeds (protocols). Well Ethernet hardware has also changed over time.
Ethernet started off supporting "10 Base-T" connections. This was soon supplanted by "100 Base-T" connections, which are still what you'll find today on many, older Ethernet devices. These simply refer to a max connection speed of 10 Mbps or 100 Mbps. But MODERN Ethernet devices support Gigabit connections -- 1000 Mbps or 1 Gbps.
And here's the problem: If you mix Gigabit and 100 Mbps hardware on the same network, the Gigabit hardware "overruns" the older, slower hardware. Now the way Ethernet is designed, checks are included in the communicating devices to make sure all the network traffic has been received properly. And when a problem is detected, resends are triggered. So Ethernet setups configured with mixed hardware like this will STILL WORK. That is, there will be no loss of data. But the necessary resends absolutely CLOBBER the transmission speed! And not just between two devices. Those resends chew up bandwidth across the Ethernet setup.
This might happen, for example, if you have a Router with Gigabit Ethernet sockets, connecting to a device with Gigabit Ethernet sockets, but passing through an older Ethernet Hub, cabled in between them, which only has 100 Mbps sockets.
What's MISSING is something called "Flow Control". This is simply an added procedure which slows down the Gigabit hardware so it doesn't overrun the 100 Mbps hardware. Thus there are no resends.
And THAT'S why the Wifi connection works faster: Because Wifi automatically imposes Flow Control.
What's needed, then, is to go into your Router and find the setting which enables Flow Control. (If you have Gigabit Switches in your Ethernet setup, they may also have a setting for this.)
You still should not have 100 Mbps hardware in your speed critical connection paths, but where you DO have them in your setup, they won't screw up the throughput of the entire Ethernet arrangement.
There's another common trap people fall into which will clobber your in-house networking performance, and that has to do with the assignment of LAN IP addresses for all your connected devices.
This is the job of your Router, and it does it using a networking protocol called "DHCP". DHCP provides a way for a device to request an IP address from the Router. The Router assigns it an unused address from its pool of IP addresses. And thus no two devices end up with the same address.
However, it is also possible to set most devices to use a FIXED IP address -- one you pick instead of one provided by the Router. There are a few good reasons why you might need to do this, but USUALLY this is done simply because people don't understand how their Router works.
And here's the problem: If two devices on the house network try to use the same IP address, performance on the network will degrade dramatically. Why? Because traffic initiated by one device gets seen by the other device -- which rejects it as unsolicited. This causes resends, which the FIRST device rejects as unsolicited. The house network gets loaded with error traffic, and all devices suffer.
If you DO have a good reason to assign a Fixed IP Address to one or more of your devices, the first thing you need to do, of course, is make sure you don't assign the same address to multiple devices YOURSELF. But the next thing you need to do is to go into your Router and check the range of IP addresses it is configured to use for DHCP requests.
A LAN IP address might look something like 192.168.1.50. The setting in the Router will be something like: Assign DHCP requests using the range 192.168.1.1 through 192.168.1.200. You can usually change the range if needed.
(The Router will likely take an address like 192.168.1.1 as its OWN address -- and the way you get to view and change the Router's settings may very well be to plug that set of numbers into the address bar of your web browser. See the documentation for your Router.)
And with a setting like that, you now know you can pick Fixed IP Addresses starting with 192.168.1.201, and up, without any possible conflict with the addresses handed out by the Router itself, in response to DHCP requests.
Routers are a type of specialized computer, and like all computers, they can have bugs. Sometimes Routers get their own internal bookkeeping screwed up and end up mistakenly assigning the same IP addresses to multiple devices all on their own.
So another good tip whenever you have a speed problem in the in-house network is simply: Reboot the Router! This causes it to start afresh, with new address assignment tables. All of your devices will discover automatically that their previously assigned DHCP IP addresses need to be refreshed. This will cause them to do new DHCP requests and get new, hopefully unique, IP addresses from the Router.
To summarize then:
When you have a network speed problem, start by trying to determine if the problem is out on the Internet (i.e., the streaming service you are trying to access, or perhaps your own Internet Service Provider). It the problem is outside your house, it doesn't hurt to lodge a complaint with Customer Support, although the odds are good the Streaming service or your ISP already KNOWS it is having a problem.
If the problem is inside your house, consider whether you are using Wifi or Ethernet. For Wifi, follow the checks described above for Channel selection, distance as it affects signal strength, and external interference.
For Ethernet, consider the Gigabit vs. 100 Mbps trap. Have you recently change some of the Ethernet hardware in your setup, or cabled your existing hardware differently?
And are you using ANY Fixed IP Addresses ANYWHERE in you house network?
If no obvious solution presents itself, always try a Reboot of your Router. If you find you have to do that frequently to clear problems, it is time to look into getting a newer -- and hopefully better engineered -- Router!