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What is Latency?

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Have you ever streamed a ball game and received a score update on your mobile before the play happens on TV? Or watched a live event, like the Oscars, only to see a Tweet revealing the best movie winner that hadn’t yet crossed your screen?
 
The delay between a live broadcast moment and when it appears on your screen is called latency (or lag, or ping). It’s the result of the time it takes live events to be digitally captured, processed, uploaded to your content provider, transferred to your home, decompressed and rendered on your screen.  With so many steps involved, there are many points at which latency can increase.  All of the initial steps are beyond our control, but there are decisions we can make to decrease latency in the latter stages of video transfer.
 
Live TV signals are transmitted to most homes in one of two ways -- via cable or over the Internet. (Direct satellite broadcast transmission is disappearing.)  Cable’s advantages, in respect to latency and picture quality, are reliably delivering ultra-high definition television with no buffering delays.  Internet transmission of video, however, is subject to the same reliability and speed limitations that you may experience on websites or virtual meetings – freezing up and download delays.   
 

How to Improve Latency

The key factor in reducing latency of streamed content is Internet speed.  Most residential broadband internet service today is provided by cable broadband or DSL phone line.  Cable’s hybrid fiber-coaxial cables offer significantly faster Internet speeds, at least 4 to 5 times that of DSL.  As an aside, this makes cable broadband best for smooth, responsive, online gaming, which demands consistently fast up- and download speeds and low latency. However, regardless of one’s broadband speed, streaming content can be slowed down by other Internet traffic, particularly at peak times, increasing latency.
 
The final measure of influence you have on latency depends on the method by which streaming content is transmitted throughout the house. Cables and ethernet connections are generally fastest and most consistent, but you probably won’t notice the minimally increased latency of Wi-Fi, provided your router is not out of date and is set up in an optimal location. 
 
Latency is one of those issues that some people never notice while it drives others crazy.  If you are in the latter group, there are steps you can take to make viewing live TV, playing games or sports betting closer to being instantaneous.  And technologists are working on solutions that are starting to roll out in the marketplace.  In the meantime, don’t look at your Twitter feed during the last minutes of the Super Bowl. 
 

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