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How to Stream the Super Bowl for Free (If You Insist)

Streaming live sports is doable, but it's not as easy as the rest of the Internet.

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Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

This year it will be easier than ever to watch the Super Bowl over the Web.

In addition to streaming Sunday’s Panthers-Broncos game via, CBS will make the game available via CBS Sports apps for devices like the iPad, Apple TV, Roku, Chromecast and Xbox One.

The streams are all free — no cable TV subscription required — and CBS won’t require users to log in or register* for anything, either. Just point, click and watch.

It will also be more enticing to watch the game over the Internet than it ever has been. In addition to making it easier to stream the game to your TV — this is the first time a TV network has streamed the Super Bowl to “over the top” devices like Apple TV — CBS is making sure that all of the national commercials that run on conventional TV also appear, at the same time, on its stream.

So if that Amazon ad with Alec Baldwin is truly awesome, you won’t be missing out.

But none of that means you should stream the game. Only that you can.

Because while the TV guys have gotten much, much better at digitizing their shows and letting you watch them whenever you want, wherever you want, getting live sports to your house over the Web remains challenging. And the reality is they can’t do as well as they can via a cable cord, or even an antenna.

“The reality is that consumers are used to getting sports in really good quality,” said video analyst Dan Rayburn. “And the Internet is just not set up for that.”

The main problem with streaming live sports over the Internet is the structure of the Internet itself: The series of tubes, and all the attendant switches and other metaphors, is really, really good at figuring out how to take a package of data and divide that data up into packets and move those packets around when they encounter congestion and then reassemble them at their destination.

That works great for stuff that isn’t time-sensitive, like email: That dumb joke from your in-laws gets to you when it gets to you, and it’s okay if it gets there 30 seconds from now. It’s also fine for on-demand video, where streaming video companies like Netflix have gotten very good at optimizing their stuff for the system, but aren’t serving everyone the same thing at the same time.

“The Internet was designed for what I’d call non-real-time traffic,” said Roger Lynch, the CEO of Dish Network’s Sling TV operation. “It’s a big traffic management system.”

That system is much less good for live, though, which requires a constant stream of new data, all of which has to show up at the same time. Live sports is even trickier, since the image is constantly changing — think of a camera tracking the progress of a ball thrown down the field — which means there’s even more data being generated, which means even more stress on the architecture.

And since the image needs to make it to your house as quickly as possible, digital video services can’t spend as much computational time encoding the images, which is one of the reasons you’ll sometimes see “artifacts” on your screen during fast-moving games like basketball.

CBS does have some advantages as it approaches Sunday, though. For starters, it has been livestreaming sports for a while, and it has been doing the equivalent of dry runs over the past few weeks by streaming AFC playoff games. Beyond that, the company has spent “a year building things, eliminating single points of failure, thinking through every single disaster scenario and building against it,” said Jeff Gerttula, who runs digital for CBS Sports.

Gerttula won’t offer a prediction for the traffic he expects to see, but other people in the video industry are happy to guess. Last year, NBC streamed the Super Bowl and saw peak traffic of 1.3 million people watching at the same time. Those numbers creep up every year, so CBS is likely expecting something like 1.6 million, industry sources say, with a variance on either side depending on how interesting the game is (recall that last year, New England won in the last seconds).

And while Gerttula’s job is to let you stream the game on Sunday, he says he still expects you to watch it on TV instead. He assumes that if you do stream the game, it will be as a “complement” to TV — maybe something you have in a different room, or something you watch as you move around the house.**

That said, if you do insist on streaming the Super Bowl, here are some tips you can use to improve your odds:

  • Make sure your broadband is broadband. Sling advises its streaming customers to have an Internet connection with speeds of five megabits per second or more — not advertised speeds, real speeds — but you’ll almost certainly want more if you expect a good picture. The FCC now defines broadband as speeds of 25 Mbps or more, and if you don’t have that, chances are you’re probably not the kind of person who would think about streaming the game anyway.
  • Claim your broadband. You probably know this, too, but if you’re going to stream the game, you should be the only one in your place streaming anything, because you don’t want CBS’ bits to compete with anyone else’s bits. Tell your kids they’ll have to watch Netflix before or after the game. Ask your bored friends who came over to watch the game to refrain from using bandwidth-hogging apps like Snapchat or Instagram — or at least, kick them off your Wi-Fi if they insist.
  • Think about ditching your Wi-Fi. Moving the stream from your wireless router to your Apple TV creates another way to lose data. “For all the times that people complain about streaming services, so many times it’s about the Wi-Fi in their home,” Rayburn said. He suggests solving that by simply plugging your streaming box directly into your router with an Ethernet cable.
  • Fix your Wi-Fi, at least. If you insist on going cordless, you can at least try to improve your signal. This Wi-Fi guide from Comcast*** has all sorts of advice you would normally never follow, like sticking your router in the middle of a room in the middle of your house. But! You might think about it for a few hours on Sunday.
  • Convince your neighbors to keep the cord. No matter how much broadband you pay for, you’re ultimately going to end up sharing capacity with your neighbors, whether you like it or not — that’s why you may often see speeds drop in the evening, when more of you are likely to be streaming Netflix or YouTube. So if you live around a lot of other people who are trying to stream stuff on Sunday, you may have a harder time watching the game. Worth thinking about if you live in Denver or North Carolina, where it’s reasonable to assume that broadband usage will be spiking this weekend.

Finally, an alternate method that may make you just as happy as a stream:

  • Ditch the Web and use an antenna. Doing so could provide you (depending on your geography) with a crystal-clear HD signal, without ever having to use terms like “buffering.” The Wirecutter says you can get a really good indoor antenna that won’t look insanely ugly for as little as $16, but if you’re reading this now, it’s probably too late to order one. Good luck!

* If you really want to pay to watch the Super Bowl over the Web, you can do that, too: Verizon will make the game available to its wireless subscribers, via its Go90 app and the NFL Mobile app; Sling will also stream a Spanish-language version via the ESPN Deportes channel it carries.

** You can assess for yourself whether Gerttula is downplaying expectations or whether he’s acutely aware that his employer makes almost all of its money from conventional TV. The two things are not mutually exclusive.

*** Yes, Comcast owns NBCUniversal, which has invested in Vox Media, which owns this site. But we’re just linking to this one here because it’s handy.

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