What is streaming and how does it work?

Back in the bad old days of the Internet, online media consumption was not as convenient as it was today. Website pages tended to be simple and static, while Internet connections were slow. They were not designed to stream media.

All of this changed in September 1995 when a live radio broadcast of a baseball was streamed by ESPN SportsZone, utilizing a brand new technology developed by a Seattle-based startup known as Progressive Networks.

This was the start of streaming as we know it. Because of slow Internet speeds and poor software, it was a long time before streaming was widely adopted. However, over the last decade, streaming has changed the way people around the world consume media.

Let’s backtrack a little and take a closer look at what streaming involves.

How streaming video and audio works

Simply put, streaming is what happens whenever you watch a movie on Netflix, a video on YouTube, or listen to a song on Spotify. In more technical terms, it is the continuous flow of sending audio and video data over a network from a server (where the media is hosted) to a client (the app the user is consuming the media on) without the user having to wait for anything to download. 

Streaming works in the same way all data is transmitted over a network like the Internet — by breaking it down (known as compressing) into smaller chunks known as packets. For example, a movie on Netflix is most likely a large multimedia file. When you stream it, the video is compressed into those smaller packets so that they’ll be sent to your TV, laptop, phone, or tablet faster. Once they reach your device, the packets are decompressed and displayed on the screen. 

Not every data packet is streamed at once; just as many packets that are needed for the viewer to watch the stream without it stopping if, for example, the Internet connection is compromised briefly. This is known as buffering. While you’re watching the already decompressed data packets, the next data packets are in the process of decompressing. Presuming you have a reliable network connection, you should be able to stream your film without any interruptions. 

Many streaming companies use Content Delivery Networks to speed up the process. 


Streaming has made media consumption a far more convenient process for everyone. Gone are the days of having to purchase physical media like CDs and DVDs or waiting for a movie or song to download to your hard drive before you can start listening or watching. Streaming makes it so that most media is available no matter where you are or whatever device you’re using, so long as you’ve got a good Internet connection.

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