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We are often told that we’re living in the information age – but it may be more accurate to say that we live in the content age.  More than any time in human history, we’re inundated from every side by content, in multiple forms – music, advertising, social media – and perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the new frontier of streaming internet television.

For years, as consumers, we’ve had to pay more than we wanted for more channels than we needed.  Now finally, the almighty “bundles” are being broken and it’s become much more possible to pay for what we want, when we want it.

Cutting the Cord

There was a time, not long ago, when changing your television provider was a big hassle.  You had to coordinate it with the termination of your previous service, you probably had to be on the phone with 2 different companies, you might have to pay an installation fee, and there was a high probability you’d be out of service for at least a small window of time.  That’s not even to mention learning the ins and outs of a new remote control device!

Those days are over, and more and more people are “cutting the cord” to traditional cable television companies.  Switching television providers now is as easy as downloading a new app to your smart TV or hitting a few links on your phone, and the competition for your business means that companies are incentivized to lower your barrier for entry by eliminating up-front costs and allowing you unprecedented control over your content.

Viewing Habits

For many people, their choice of television provider depends on what channels or shows they like to watch.  In the current climate, many channels or shows are becoming exclusive to certain streaming services.  For example, as you’ve probably seen in the news, AT&T-owned WarnerMedia recently spent $425 million for the exclusive streaming rights to the popular 90’s sit-com “Friends” (it will be part of the upcoming “HBO Max” service set to debut in 2020).  With many viewers’ habits changing from so-called “appointment viewing” to “binge watching,” it has also become much more palatable for them to switch platforms as they switch shows.

“But can I get local news and sports?”

Many viewers still enjoy the content on their local channels, which is often still available on some online platforms.  Local sports, too, is another popular target of television watchers, and is similarly often available depending on the service.

Many streaming services offer free trial periods and promotional rates in the first few months.  There are even a few totally free streaming services with robust channel lineups, the most popular of which is called Pluto TV (purchased by Viacom in March for $340 million).  Most of the services offer a “TV Guide” type channel along with varying amounts of “DVR” functionality and storage space.  A few popular cable-like services with local channels are YouTube TV, Hulu with Live TV, and Sling, but a Google search for “streaming internet television” should reveal multiple options.

Competition is good for the consumer, everyone knows that.  But in the world of internet TV, it can also create confusion and obfuscation.  With so many options, how can anyone possibly know what to choose?  The good news is, you don’t have to choose.  Since it’s so easy to switch, you can essentially try them all.

Here is a rundown of a few of the currently popular streaming internet television options.

Caveat: These services are changing all the time.  All pictures and pricing are from Sept.-Oct. 2019.  These are the opinions of one writer.  Services were chosen somewhat randomly based on awareness of the service, user reviews, and accessibility.   This is not an attempt to review all streaming services out there. 

YouTube TV

Cost: $49.99/month and up

Considered by many to be the best current streaming internet television service, YouTube TV has the advantage of being owned by Google, which A) has a lot of money and B) knows what you like.  It offers probably the best combination of local channels, sports, news, and regular programming.  In addition, it offers unlimited “DVR” space, and allows you to keep recordings for 9 months, whereas many services only allow 30 days.  It is also among the pricier options, at $49.99/month.  Unlike many of the other services, there is only one level of service, with limited add-on channels.  In many ways it is the most “Cable TV-like” of the streaming internet television services.

A snapshot of add-on channels and pricing
Incredibly, YouTube TV offers unlimited “DVR” space.

Their “Guide” looks good and is easy to navigate on both PC and mobile.

YouTubeTV also offers the ability to “Pause” your membership for 8 weeks, allowing you to keep your recordings for a time without paying the monthly service bill, which is a nice feature.

Hulu + Live TV

$45/month and up

If YouTube TV, is #1 in the streaming television world, then the matter-of-factly named “Hulu + Live TV” is probably currently #2.  Offering a similar quality of service, Hulu also has the advantage of offering exclusive original content such as popular shows “The Handmaids Tale” and “Letterkenny.”

Unfortunately, their Guide interface could use a little work.  Instead of clicking on a show and having it immediately go to that show on full-screen, which is what you might expect, and what YouTube TV does, clicking on a show brings up a box with a play button, which if you press then brings up a tiny picture-in-picture version of the show in the corner of your screen which you then have to click AGAIN to get it to full-screen.  Not ideal!  Also, their Guide channel, with its lack of color or thumbnail videos, doesn’t look as good as YouTube TV’s.

“Oh, you wanted to watch this show? Too bad, you have to mouse around and click two more times.”

Hulu with Live TV offers 50 hours of DVR storage space, as opposed to YouTube TV’s unlimited.  There is an option to upgrade to 200 hours for an additional charge.  However, their DVR does not allow you to fast-forward through commercials, which is a large part of the appeal of DVR.  All things considered, Hulu with Live TV is a good service at a decent price, and YouTube’s advantages over it are somewhat mitigated by its good original content.

Sling

$25/month and up

Sling is the plan with the lowest base cost and the most add-on channels.  Their base plan is split between their “Orange” and “Blue” plans, at $25.00/month and $24.99/month, respectively, with many add-on channels available.

The differences between the two plans are somewhat complicated.

Some of Sling’s ordering options

Again, depending on what channels you like to watch, this could be a solid budget-conscious option.  (Sling recently lost all Fox channels to a fees dispute, but have since re-added them.) For example, Sling Orange is currently the cheapest way to get ESPN.  If you start adding a lot of extra channels to your base plan, the price could start to become prohibitive.  But the ability to edit your subscription at any time means that you probably don’t need to have them all at once.

Unlike many other services, DVR is not included.  You can however pay $5 a month for the ability to record 50 hours, although you can’t record Disney or ESPN channels.

Their menu and guide are fairly intuitive and along the lines of the others.  The black interface gives it a bit of different look.

Netflix

$8.99-$12.99/month

Netflix is different than most of the others on this list, for many reasons.  They are the only one to not offer a Live TV component, being purely a Streaming Video on Demand (SVOD) service.  They are also the only one without ads, although the convenient DVR functionality of most of the other services reduces the need to watch commercials.

Netflix is thought to be one of the only streaming providers to have “spent years and untold millions building out its own global CDN Network” [source].

They also correctly predicted the future importance of owning their own content, as they continue to spend billions of dollars on original content.  Literally!

CuriosityStream

$2.99/month

Another outlier on this list, the documentary-only video-on-demand service CuriosityStream is available on its own, as a website or app, or as an add-on channel for some of the other services.  At only $2.99/month, it has a huge catalog of documentary and educational viewing.  If your favorite part of Netflix is the David Attenborough-narrated nature shows, this is the channel for you!

Playstation Vue*

$45/month and up

Honorable mention to Playstation Vue.  Contrary to what is probably popular belief, you do not need to own a Playstation to watch Vue.  It is a streaming over-the-internet service, not tied to a device.  It gets generally good reviews, but this writer has not tried it.  Unlike many of the other services, it is offered in bundles, although they do also offer a variety of add-on channels.

*UPDATE:

In an illustration of this sometimes volatile market, Playstation Vue recently announced that they are “going dark” in January of 2020, leaving their estimated 500,000 subscribers in need of a new streaming service.

You may have noticed that there are many websites that test your internet speed – otherwise known as internet speed tests.  You might also have noticed that different sites will give you different results.  Why is that?  Today we’ll discuss how internet speed tests work, and delineate the many factors that influence them.

How do they work?

On the most basic level, the mechanics of an internet speed test are easy to understand.  To test your download speed, the test site sends a file of a known size to your computer, and measures how long it takes for your computer to download it.   Similarly, your upload speed is measured by how long it takes your computer to upload a file of a known size to the test site.

 

Simple, right?  Well unfortunately, there are a host of variables between your home router and the test site that complicate matters considerably.  Not only that, but conflation of the terms speed and bandwidth complicate the issue even further.

 

Most consumers assume that the number from their speed test should match, or at least approach, the number on their internet bill.  But in actuality, their internet service provider is selling them bandwidth, not speed.  The speed is impacted by many factors out of your ISPs control.  It is important to note that speed and bandwidth are two different things, although they are closely related and the two terms are often used interchangeably.

Bandwidth Vs. Speed

 

Bandwidth is a measurement of the connection, not the speed going over that connection. 

 

In other words, your bandwidth is your maximum speed. Internet service providers typically offer several tiers of service options, and they are usually differentiated mainly by download bandwidth, with cheaper options offering less download bandwidth and vice versa.  The average download speed in the United States in Q2-Q3 of 2018 was 96.25 Mbps.  (Download and upload speeds are typically measured in Megabits per second (Mbps)).

 

But again, bandwidth is a measurement of the connection, not the speed going over that connection.  Your bandwidth is your maximum speed.  So, an internet user with a service plan offering 100 Mbps of download bandwidth will not necessarily get a reading of 100 Mbps download speed from an internet speed test.

Leaving Your House, Entering the Internet

Once Internet traffic leaves your house through your router (which can itself limit throughput), depending on where it is routed, it may not have access to that same level of bandwidth.  If it does encounter a lessening of bandwidth, at that point the speed gets choked down to whatever that connection is.

 

The analogy of car traffic is often used to illustrate this idea.  If traffic is humming along on an 8-lane highway, and suddenly there are only 2 lanes, traffic is going to slow considerably.  The same thing happens on the Internet when a 1 Gbps  connection gets sent over a 100 Mbps connection.  In the context of this analogy, bandwidth is your vehicle’s maximum speed on an open road, under perfect conditions, with no other traffic.

This bandwidth bottlenecking is often a result of physical network cabling.  While you may be lucky enough to have an internet service provider build a fiber-optic connection right to your home, the internet-at-large is still constructed largely on the backbone of shared coaxial cable, which stands like Ozymandias over the desert of the cable TV industry.

Many Factors

In other words, despite information on the internet being transferred at a rate difficult to comprehend by the human mind, there are still constraints that are based on physical realities of how the internet is constructed.  Among these are the amount of bandwidth physically able to be carried by different cable technologies, the processing speed and the amount of routers and/or firewalls along the path of the information, the distance between them, and the amount of other homes or devices hooked up to the same internet connection.  Even your browser and operating system can place limits on your available bandwidth.

 

With all these factors at play, hopefully you can begin to see how the number on your internet speed test will not be the same number as the one on your internet plan.  However, there are a few things you can do to achieve the most accurate possibly speed test.

 

  1. Disable any non-essential processes running on your computer
  2. Use the speed test site recommended by your ISP (CTS Telecom recommends http://www.speedtest.net)
  3. Run the test at a low-traffic time of day (this may vary based on your location).

 

Although the entire Internet is not equipped to handle speeds up to 1 Gbps, CTS Telecom offers that amount of bandwidth because we are on the leading edge of Internet technology, and we believe the Internet will eventually catch up to our level of service.  In the meantime, regardless of the number on a speed test, we can confidently state that we are offering the fastest, most reliable Internet connections in our area.

Despite its somewhat whimsical name, the Internet of Things (often abbreviated IoT)  is a complex topic of global significance.  Its impact will be felt not only economically, in the form of new products and services, but socially, as the new generation of Internet-connected devices changes the way we live.

So what is the Internet of Things?  It’s the generally agreed-upon term for devices that connect to the Internet in one way or another, usually for a limited purpose.  For example, one of the most common IoT devices is a “smart thermostat.” A smart thermostat is one that you can control remotely, via an app on your phone for example, so that you can monitor and alter your home’s temperature from afar (in the context of internet devices, “smart” is just another way of saying “connected to the internet”).   “Smart home” hub devices like Alexa are also becoming increasingly popular.

EXPONENTIAL GROWTH

Believe it or not, research firm Gartner estimates that around 8.4 billion(!) such “smart” devices were in use in 2017 (this includes smart TVs), up 31% from 2016, and that this number will reach approximately 20.4 billion by 2020.  With this kind of incredible growth, it’s no surprise that the Internet of Things is a topic of great interest to the business sector.

Healthcare, agriculture, and manufacturing are 3 of the fields expected to benefit most from the potential of IoT, but security and energy companies are also expected to invest heavily in IoT infrastructures, as remote-access cameras and the aforementioned smart thermostats become more widely available.  Cities and municipalities, too, will benefit from the power of the IoT to seamlessly integrate data to facilitate management of traffic flow, environmental issues, and safety concerns.

THE PERFECT STORM

There are a variety of factors, a “perfect storm” if you will, which has allowed for this proliferation of Internet-connected “Things.”  Widespread availability of wireless networks, cheaper processors, and the arrival of IPv6, which dramatically increased the number of IP numbers available for use, were all essential prerequisites for the opportunities for simple household items to be connected to the world at large via the Internet.

The world, too, has become more connected.  In 1995, less than 1% of the world’s population had internet access.  As of January 2018, that number was 55% and growing.  Bandwidth, too, is ever increasing, with some forward-thinking internet service providers already offering 1 Gbps download speeds as a standard internet service.  So as the ability of “Things” to be connected to the internet has increased, so too has the ability of people to be connected to those Things from the other side.

SECURITY & PRIVACY

One of the foremost concerns with all of this convenient internet access is security.  Bringing the internet closer to the world also brings it closer to malevolent forces who would use it for their own benefit.  One can easily imagine a hacker gaining access to a device remotely and using it to cause harm (for example, turning off industrial-scale smart refrigerators or other electronic devices), to say nothing of self-replicating viruses that could spread from one device to another.  Privacy, too, is wrapped up in the IoT, as cameras, remote monitoring, and smart homes become more and more prevalent.  Despite these challenges, the predicted success of the future IoT economy is easy to envision.

THE FUTURE

With once fantastical-sounding inventions like driverless cars on the foreseeable horizon, the potential applications of the Internet of Things are virtually limitless.  Past technological developments have led us to a present time where smart homes are becoming a reality.  With smart cities expected to appear by 2025, can a fully connected planet be far behind?