ISP Throttling: What Is It? and How To Stop It

ISP throttling

Is there anything more annoying than when you’re catching up the latest episodes of Black Mirror only to notice a quality issue with your streaming? It seems like the stream never starts out looking all pixelated, but every so often you start to see some noticeable pixelization.

What gives? You check your Netflix settings to make sure you’re getting the highest quality, and you know it’s not your new smart TV. That only leaves one culprit.

Your Internet Service Provider (ISP).

Yup, you’re experiencing the frustration of ISP throttling. Where I live in Las Vegas, this happens all the time with my Cox high speed internet, especially at peak usage times. And I’ve experienced it traveling all over the world.

So, What Is Throttling?

When you experience a noticeable downgrade in your internet connection’s speed, that is throttling. It’s due to your ISP intentionally slowing down your broadband internet connection’s speed.

Why the heck would they do such a thing?

Throttling typically happens when the network is congested or when the ISP just wants to regulate the traffic on the network. That’s why I tend to notice it most often during the evenings, when most people are home from work and using their internet service.

Throttling happens with home and business internet connections, as well as cell phone internet connections.

To get more technical about this, throttling is when too many people are requesting data from servers and clogging up the information superhighway with their requests, aka internet traffic. And clearing that traffic congestion is what ISP throttling is all about.

All internet network providers only have so much bandwidth for their clients traffic; so the more traffic the slower your internet speed due to the limited bandwith and throttling.

But What Is Limited Bandwith?

Instead of getting super technical, I think the easiest way to explain limited bandwith in regards to bandwith throttling is with cell phone data plans.

Have you ever had a data plan for your smartphone that gives you a certain amount of data, and once you’ve used up all that data you still get internet access but at a slower speed?

That’s basically bandwith throttling in a nutshell.

With limited bandwith throttling from your ISP, you still get access to the internet, but your experience is a bit degraded compared to your normal usage experience.

When you think about it, throttling is actually not so bad since the alternative would be for the ISP to shut off your access to clear all the traffic. At least with limited bandwith throttling you can still get online, even if it is super slow sometimes.

Why Do ISPs Throttle Your Internet Connection?

Though it seems like the only real reason your ISP would ever throttle you is due to too much congestion on the network, that’s not really the whole truth here.

As mentioned with our cell phone data plan example above, sometimes ISPs will throttle your internet connection just because you’ve used up your allotted data limit. Seems fair enough, if you were warned of your limit in advance, right?

Well, your ISP isn’t always so transparent.

Sometimes you will get throttled if your ISP doesn’t like how much data you’ve used or if they think you’ve used too much data in too quick of a period.

ISPs have also been known to throttle specific types of traffic, such as streaming video or when people are backing up massive amounts of data to the cloud. In fact, a recent Bloomberg article notes that wireless carriers have been found to throttle traffic from Netflix and Youtube. According to the article, Verizon Wireless is the worst offender for this practice.

When ISPs selectively throttle your internet connection like this it is problematic because it lets them dictate the type of online behavior that they deem to be acceptable.

Though the FCC used to offer consumers some protection against these practices, the Trump administration’s FCC has opted to take the side of the ISPs instead of consumers.

So, What ISPs Are Throttling Internet Connections?

The quick answer here is that pretty much all of them are here in the USA, sadly.

In the Bloomberg article mentioned earlier, there are confirmed reports of Verizon Wireless, AT&T Wireless, T-Mobile and Sprint throttling the connections of smartphone users.

Carriers say they’re throttling to manage internet traffic. To deliver the videos people want to watch on their phones, sacrifices in speed are required, according to the three largest U.S. wireless companies, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile.

So, what about your home internet provider, are they throttling you? Yup.

I’ve already mentioned my experience with Cox, but it’s not just me. A forum post shows a Cox representative confirming throttling, and they’ve been known to throttle torrenting traffic.

The internet’s favorite ISP to hate, Comcast, also has a lengthy history of throttling their customers’ internet usage. However, after implementing data caps and overage fees, they claim to have stopped throttling in the summer of 2018. Time will tell if that’s the truth or not.

In 2016, Quartz published a chart to show you the speed differences amongst the various ISPs when you’re streaming Netflix. It’s eye opening, to say the least.

The problem with throttling is not just that most, if not all, ISPs are doing it, but that a large percentage of the population lives where there are only limited options when it comes to picking an ISP. Where I live in Vegas, I only have Cox as my option (some areas of Vegas do have CenturyLink as a second option).

ISP throttling isn’t something that is unique to the United States. In fact, it happens all over the world, though it is worse in some countries than others.

In 2012, the Google-backed Measurement Lab looked at BitTorrent throttling across the world to determine which countries were the worst offenders for this practice. Though the data is admittedly old, it’s still an interesting glimpse into this global practice.

throtteld countries
image via Torrent Freak

Is Throttling Legal?

While it seems like is should be illegal for your ISP to not give you the service that you paid for, that is not the case.

And with the repeal Net Neutrality here in the United States, there’s really nothing to stop your ISP from throttling you whenever they feel like it.

However, there is a bit of a silver lining here. AT&T has been in some legal hot water for throttling the connection of wireless customers who are on unlimited data plans. Of course, this may just result in the elimination of “unlimited” data plans and nothing else.

How Can You Tell If You’re Getting Throttled By Your ISP?

For me, I find that throttling is most noticeable when I’m streaming Netflix or Hulu and the quality of the video goes down to the point of being super noticeable. Often, the video starts to look almost like it’s pixelated.

Of course, you can get throttled when you’re not streaming and you don’t have your laptop, tablet, or cell phone serving up a pixelated internet. So, how do you know then? After all, the slowness you notice could just be caused by the website you’re visiting.

1. Run A Speed Test

The first thing to check is the speed of your internet connection. You can use https://www.speedtest.net/ for that.

Compare your results with the service you’re paying for from your ISP. Just don’t forget to check if your ISP has data limits for your plan, and if you’ve already exceeded your limit.

You may discover that you’re being throttled for a perfectly good reason. Or, you might find that your ISP is the worst.

speedtest
note: I pay for the 1000 Mbps download | 35 Mpbs upload package

2. Try The Netflix FAST Speed Test

If you’re curious if your ISP is throttling your Netflix connection, then you can use the FAST speed test to find out.

FAST speed test
thanks for the shitty speed, Cox!

3. Got YouTube Problems?

If you’re streaming from YouTube and notice problems, then you can use the Google Video Quality report to see what kind of performance you should be getting when connected to the site.

Google Video Quality Report

It’s safe to assume that you’re being throttled by your ISP if you have a fast internet connection but your YouTube streaming quality is poor.

I also think it’s pretty interesting that you can see peak streaming times on this one. And it’s easy for me to note that peak YouTube streaming is around the time when I noticed my internet connection starts slowing.

4. Try The Internet Health Test

The Internet Health Test by Battle for the Net is a great way to see if there are any problems with your internet connection.

Internet Health TestAfter looking over the results of these tests, you should be able to determine if you’re getting throttled or not. You may discover that you just need to upgrade your internet package. Or, you may need to get a tech to come out to you home to see if you can get closer to the speeds that you’re paying for. Or maybe, just maybe, you are getting throttled by your ISP.

I’m Getting Throttled By My ISP! How Can I Stop It?

So, you’ve determined that your ISP is, in fact, throttling your internet connection. What can you do about it?

Depending on what you’re doing online, there are some workarounds that can help you take back your internet speed from the throttling.

1. Try A Proxy

Using a proxy server sounds super technical, but it’s honestly not at all. This is just when you route your computer’s connections through a third-party server instead of through your ISPs server.

You can think of a proxy as a middle man. It works to hide the destination of your traffic. A proxy also makes it appear that your connections are using a single port, when that’s not the case.

The good thing about proxies is that they’re free, though you can pay for some (I don’t advise it).

The bad thing about proxies is that they are a bit slow. Plus, they don’t encrypt any data. So, if you’re doing to slow things down a bit anyways, then you may as well use a VPN that also encrypts your data.

Think a proxy is the best choice for you? Plenty of experts recommend CyberGhost’s free anonymous proxy, though I’ve never used it and can’t vouch for it personally.

cyberghost proxy

2. Use A VPN

If your ISP is throttling only specific types of traffic, such as torrenting or Netflix streaming, then a VPN sounds like the perfect solution for you.

A VPN encrypts all of your internet traffic so that your ISP cannot tell what you are doing online.

Of course, it’s always possible that your ISP is really shitty and just throttling 100% of your traffic, in which case a VPN won’t solve your problem. And if you’re only experiencing ISP throttling during peak usage times, then it’s a good bet that network congestion is the cause and all traffic is being throttled.

In this instance, it’s a good idea to shop around for a new ISP provider, if there are other options in your area.

And if you’re experiencing throttling on your smartphone or tablet, then remember that you can use a VPN app on your devices as well.

3. Try Using Your Smartphone As A Mobile Hotspot

Though wireless carriers are known to throttle customers as well, if you’re experiencing throttling on your home internet connection due to true network congestion then using your phone as a hotspot might solve this temporary problem.

Personally, I find that using my AT&T Wireless connection as a hotspot does speed things up a bit when my Cox connection is dreadfully slow during those peak usage hours.

Of course, this isn’t a permanent solution since their cell phone internet connection will likely end up throttled as well. But it does work in the short term.

I’ve also done this when I’ve been traveling and the place that I’m staying has a super slow wi-fi connection. In fact, when I spent three months in Turkey I had to get a SIM card from Turkcell just so I’d have acceptable internet access in the condo I was renting.

What To Look For In A Good VPN For Throttling

As you might expect, going with a VPN is my preferred method of dealing with bandwith throttling from my ISP when I’m streaming or torrenting. If you’ve never used a VPN before, then let me tell you what to look for when signing up with one for the first time.

1. Lots Of Server Locations

Not only do you want to go with a service that has some servers located near you, but you want to be sure that they offer a lot of different servers.

The reason that this is important is because you don’t want those servers to be overloaded with other users.

Plus, the closer you are to the VPN server, the faster your connection will be. For instance, if you are in Columbus, Ohio but the closest server is in Los Angeles, then your connection won’t be as fast as if your server is in Cleveland or even Chicago.

2. Doesn’t Keep Logs

While a VPN that keeps logs won’t directly affect your connection speed, it does directly affect your privacy.

If your VPN provider keeps logs, then they could tell your ISP what you’re up to online or just sell that data to other third parties.

Definitely avoid VPN services that keep logs on what you’re up to online.

3. Deep Packet Inspection Prevention

Since the ISPs know that people are using VPNs to circumvent their preferred online browsing activities, they use Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) to identify what you’re up to online.

I know this sounds technical, so let me break it down for you.

When your computer sends data over the web, that data is transmitted in packets. What your ISP does is take a look into those packets to get an idea of what you’re up to online.

A quality VPN provider stops this from happening by encrypting the the data packet head and anonymizing it.

You can see why this is a very important feature of any VPN service that you’re considering using!

4. Support For P2P And Torrenting

Sure, you might not get yourself a VPN with the intent to torrent, but you still might end up needing a P2P connection.

Not all VPNs support this type of online activity, so you need to be sure that you’re only using one that does support it.

5. A Kill Switch

Personally, this feature right here is vital to me after a bad experience a few years ago where a shitty VPN leaked by actual IP address when I was working online for a company that didn’t allow you to work outside of your home country.

As you might have guessed, a kill switch is a feature that protects your actual IP address (location) in the event that the VPN connection is lost.

A kill switch works by basically preventing your computer from communicating online if the VPN connection disconnects. It will only let you resume your online activities once it successfully reconnects to the VPN server.

What Are The Best VPNs To Prevent ISP Throttling?

Using my list of must-have features above, you’ll be able to find plenty of VPN providers that meet these requirements. Choosing any of them should be enough to help you achieve the faster internet speeds that you were used to before the throttling.

However, I do have some favorites that I’ve used in the past. So, if you’re looking to jump right into the best VPN for throttling, then I can help you out with that.

1. NordVPN

As a frequent traveler who works online, this right here is my go-to choice when I get online pretty much anywhere. I even use it at my home base sometimes!

Right now, it’s my number one choice as the best VPN for the money, followed closely by ExpressVPN.

It has all of my must-have features, including an app that I can put on my smartphone and tablet. And it’s just a great all around VPN for any need.

However there are two things about NordVPN that give it that edge over ExpressVPN for my needs:

  • You can connect up to 6 devices at once
  • It’s slightly cheaper than Express VPN

nord vpn homepage

I’ve used it all over the world, and it also has fast connections and plenty of servers to choose from when you’re ready to connect and get online.

And yes, they don’t care if you’re torrenting – they welcome P2P/torrent traffic users.

Did I mention that I really love that you can connect 6 devices at the same time? Cause I don’t travel alone and I have a lot of devices, so this is truly awesome for me.

They offer a 30-day money back guarantee, and you can get started for just $11.95. Or, spring for a longer commitment and enjoy even cheaper monthly rates.

You can even pay in crypto, which is really cool if you’re extra serious about your privacy.

To learn more, visit the NordVPN website.

2. ExpressVPN

I’ve used a lot of different VPNs in my travels over the last decade, and this is one of the few that I would recommend as hands down the best option for the money.

It has all of my must-have features, including an app that I can put on my smartphone and tablet. And it’s just a great all around VPN for any need.

However, I don’t like that they only let you connect 3 devices at a time, but that might be just enough for some people.

ExpressVPN homepage

As a traveler, I appreciate that ExpressVPN has fast connections all over the world. And, they have great customer service, if you ever need support from them.

And since I sometimes torrent things when I’m traveling abroad, I love that ExpressVPN supports torrenting and P2P traffic.

They offer a 30-day money back guarantee, and you can get started for just $12.95. Or, spring for a longer commitment and enjoy even cheaper monthly rates.

To learn more, visit the ExpressVPN website.

3. Private Internet Access VPN

This is my backup VPN that I’ve used for around five years at the time of this writing. I actually starting using this one about a year before I first tried ExpressVPN and NordVPN.

PIA VPN

Like ExpressVPN, Private Internet Access (PIA) meets all of my must-have requirements listed above.

And since I don’t live alone, I like that they allow multiple devices to be active on the account at the same time. Of course, this is also a common feature amongst the top VPN service providers.

One cool thing about PIA though is that they allow you to pay anonymously with any major brand gift card. So, if you got a Walmart gift card for your birthday or Christmas, then you can use that thing to pay for your PIA VPN fees.

PIA features

Honestly, I think the only advantage that PIA has over ExpressVPN and NordVPN is that it is cheaper.

So, if you’re on a budget or just want to save a little coin each month, then you should go with PIA instead of ExpressVPN for your private browsing needs.

They offer a 7-day money back guarantee, and you can get started for just $6.95. Or, spring for a longer commitment and enjoy even cheaper monthly rates.

To learn more, visit the Private Internet Access (PIA) VPN website.

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