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The 0s and 1s of streaming video: How does it actually work?

Streaming is becoming mainstream for many Aussies, but how does all that content actually make its way to your device?

One of the most exciting by-products of ever-improving broadband speeds has been the rapid evolution of streaming services.

High-definition streaming is now, for many users, the standard.

Do you listen to internet radio, watch Twitch or binge on House of Cards with Netflix? If so, you’re living in stream world.

Streaming vs. traditional downloading

Imagine you have a movie. Now imagine you break that movie up into little pieces. You then get all those pieces and put them in a big sack and tie it off at the top.

There is now a full movie in that sack.

If you were to download that movie in the traditional sense, your computer would reach out through the internet to that sack’s location, grab the entire sack, and bring it back to your hard drive.

Once you have the whole movie, you can then use video software on your computer to open the sack, put the pieces back together, and play the movie.

Thanks to your traditional download, you can open and close that sack (to watch the movie) as many times as you like, but you can’t actually do this until you have the whole sack downloaded, as well as every piece inside it.

Like Santa trying to pull a big, bulbous bag down a narrow chimney, moving the whole sack down an internet pipeline can be hard work.

Now imagine you have the same original sack. With streaming you reach out and undo the string tying the top closed.

Then, one by one and in order, all those little pieces of the movie stream out of the sack and down the internet to your device, where software – like Netflix or Stan, to use some popular examples – can decode those pieces as they arrive and show them to you as a movie.

You never have the sack on your computer, though; it stays where it is, and in our analogy all the little pieces of the movie eventually disappear from your end and go back to where they came from.

So, if you stop the service and close the sack, then the pieces of the movie and the sack stay put in their original home until you next open it up and hit play.

By forming that stream of little pieces from the source to your screen, you’re still downloading, but just the data from the sack, not the whole sack itself.

When streaming, the conversation between the software on your device and the server holding the sack – which could contain a movie, a song, radio, live footage, whatever – is ideally so fast you never know it is happening.

This is because all the little pieces can fit and flow down the internet pipeline far easier than one big sack.

This is streaming in a nutshell (well, a sack, at least). 

Learning to swim upstream 

With streaming there is not necessarily any content hosted on your device.

A Netflix spokesperson confirmed this with nbn, stating, “no data is stored at the customer’s end when streaming, so you can watch your favourite show or film even if you have no storage space left on your device.

“Streaming still uses your internet data, approximately 1GB per hour for standard definition content and 3GB per hour for high definition.”  

In short, you are watching it as it is being downloaded in order, after which it is ‘consumed’ by the software.

Even the act of browsing and selecting something to stream occurs on a distant server.

Using the previous example, imagine hundreds of sacks with hundreds of movies; you can choose exactly which sack you want to open, and when to open it.

“The Netflix experience is built to be personalised to each member,” the Netflix spokesperson continued, “using a combination of algorithms to connect members with the next film or TV show they will love.

“Our aim is to help people find something great to watch quickly and easily, and then start the viewing experience in as few clicks as possible.

“We do this by ensuring that relevant content is as close to your fingertips as possible.” 

Navigating the rapids 

Hopefully from our sack analogy, you’ve picked up that streaming is actually still a form of downloading, just that instead of downloading an entire piece of content, you’re downloading a stream of data to be consumed very close to the moment it is received on your end.

The massive benefit to viewers is that the hosting, encoding and maintenance of that content is all handled by the provider.

Providing a streaming experience that is easy for the user is a complicated process.

The Netflix spokesperson we reached out to went on to say that, “Netflix employs nearly 2,000 engineers.

“We use a custom-built content delivery network called Open Connect to deliver content to 190 countries simultaneously, and streaming technology that helps to ensure a seamless experience, even in bandwidth-constrained environments.”

As the data needs to travel from the host server, down the network, to the user’s device, and then be decoded by the receiving software, there are many parts at play in determining the quality of the video.

No matter how efficient and streamlined a delivery network is made, things such as the location of the server, and the distance it must travel to get to a device in Australia, still matter.

This is why streaming from a local service, like Stan, or a service with local servers, like Netflix or YouTube, will almost always deliver better results than if you’re streaming from an overseas service.

You also need a fast-enough connection on the viewer’s end, meaning Australians without access to fast broadband have traditionally had no option for streaming.

With access to fast internet such as via the nbn™ network, more Australians than ever now have access to streaming services, with that number only set to rise as we move towards being the world’s first fully connected continent.

Each year, Aussies are consuming more and more data. Interested in how much? Check out our article on data usage downunder.

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