Crossing the Stream

David Powell

IT BEGAN AS A TRICKLE. Now, it’s a flood—and my family’s been swept up in it. For the past decade, we’ve streamed on-demand movies and Netflix shows, but we also continued to pay far too much for live TV using either cable or satellite services. No longer.

As Jannette Collins noted in a recent article, there are now numerous internet streaming services, including some free options. Our family has used some of these, but we still kept costly TV service for live broadcasts of news, sports and first-run shows.

To be sure, some live TV internet streaming services offer nearly all the same channels as cable and satellite providers. But “nearly” is a problem, especially for sports fans. Out-of-market football games were one reason I resisted switching to a live TV streaming service. If you want to watch all live NFL games for a team outside your local market, you’ll need DirecTV—and you’ll pay dearly for it.

There are reports that DirecTV’s NFL contract ends in 2022, at which point more streaming options are expected. NFL’s own Game Pass subscription service lets you stream any game after a daylong wait. With sports fans, patience is a rare commodity. My spouse and I have a bottomless well of patience and willpower for investing, but little interest in watching day-old sports.

Quality concerns are the other reason I’ve waited to “cut the cord.” We have a solid home network with an internet connection that consistently delivers at least 50 megabits per second, my minimum bar for good live TV streaming. But for a good streaming experience, service providers also have to invest in reliable infrastructure, and that takes time.

I first tried live streaming baseball games on MLB.TV in 2011. For the first few years, the quality of MLB’s service was a bit rough. But MLB.TV has matured nicely. Today, its live games seem on par with cable or satellite, plus the service offers time-saving features I love.

Finally, I took the plunge in December with a free two-week trial to YouTube TV, a Google subscription service focused on delivering live and recorded TV programs from local broadcast channels, as well as popular cable and satellite channels. At $65 a month, it’s one of the more expensive live TV streaming options, but it offers all the channels we regularly use. We loved our trial experience so much that we kept it and ditched our satellite service, saving $80 a month. The YouTube TV app is available for nearly every device.

Before crossing into the world of streaming, there are two other considerations, each with a potential budget impact.

Internet data caps. The amount of data you use for an hour of streamed content will depend on the high definition (HD) resolutions available from your streaming services, and whether they’re supported by your TV and home network. Many home broadband internet providers cap free data at a terabyte (1,000 gigabytes) per month, which is fine today. On Netflix, you can stream around 12 to 15 hours of 1080P HD resolution movies every day before you hit that limit.

But that terabyte monthly data cap will look less generous as 4K and high-dynamic range TVs and content become mainstream, because it takes more data to stream that same hour of higher resolution, better-looking movies. If you want to avoid data cap fees or paying for unlimited internet data, look for streaming services that let you choose a lower resolution. As you ponder the issue, be mindful of work and school data usage, especially with many of us working from home during COVID-19.

Aggregate subscription costs. Tempted to spend some of your cord-cutting savings on additional streaming services? Content kings like Disney are airing new content first on their streaming services, increasing the appeal of these services. With many cinemas shuttered during the pandemic, even films that would have launched in theaters are appearing first on streaming services. Problem is, these additional subscriptions can quickly add up, turning your initial savings into a hole in your pocket—one that’s easy to overlook.

David Powell has spent his career writing software and leading engineering teams. During his 40 years working in tech, he has come to respect the limits of human imagination in any planning. Like the rest of us, David looks forward to a post-COVID world with lots of travel, shaking hands and dining in restaurants. Follow David on Twitter @AmpedToGo and check out his earlier articles.

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