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If you’re experiencing slower internet speeds than you’re accustomed to, you may be browsing during a peak usage time, using equipment that needs attention or competing with other users in your home for bandwidth. Another common reason for lagging speeds is internet throttling, the act of intentionally slowing internet speeds by your internet service provider.
What is throttling?
Internet throttling is when your internet service provider (ISP) limits your bandwidth or slows your connection to certain online activities after you’ve reached a monthly limit, commonly referred to as a data cap.
This industry practice can be especially annoying for those who utilize their internet connection for gaming, video streaming and file downloads. Once your ISP begins to throttle your connection, you may experience buffering while streaming services like YouTube or Netflix, as well as lags or delays in gaming and file transfers.
Why do ISPs throttle internet and is it illegal?
Internet service providers throttle speeds for a number of reasons. Some internet plans come with data restrictions to limit monthly data usage. When consumers reach this limit before the data cap resets, instead of cutting off the internet connection altogether, providers drastically reduce a household’s internet speeds to give priority bandwidth to homes that are still within their data limit.
You may also be experiencing symptoms of throttling due to high usage in the area during your browsing time. Now that users are relying on their connection to work and learn from home, the time previously defined as Internet Rush Hour is hard to pin down. Today’s internet users could experience throttling issues at any time of the day. Internet connection types that involve sharing bandwidth with local users – like cable internet, for example – are especially susceptible to congestion-related throttling.
In most instances, internet throttling is perfectly legal as long as the provider makes the customer aware in the fine print details.
“Throttling often is done without users explicitly opting in, and disclosures are often in fine print, so many users may have no idea this is happening and may have no option to turn it off except to pay even more,” said David Choffnes, assistant professor in the College of Computer and Information Science at Northeastern University.
Choffnes and a team from Northeastern University worked with a team from the University of Massachusetts Amherst to investigate throttling of video content by mobile and fixed-line providers using an app they developed, Wehe.
How to tell if your internet is being throttled
Here are a few steps to quickly and easily find out if you’re experiencing internet throttling.
Run a speed test
Use our speed test to get an initial read on your internet speeds. Be sure to run the test when your internet connection isn’t being used, as online activities like downloading large files can influence your speed test results.
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Pro Tip: For best results, use an Ethernet cord to connect your router or modem directly to your device before you run the test.
Run a speed test on a Virtual Private Network
After your first speed test, install a Virtual Private Network, or VPN, and then run the test again. A VPN-run speed test should help indicate whether your service provider is selectively throttling your internet during certain times of the day or types of internet usage. In some cases, your internet service provider may only throttle speeds during specific online activities such as torrent streaming.
Some internet providers can tell when you’re running a speed test and will pause throttling until the test is over to avoid detection. A service, like NordVPN, can help to mask your internet activities and give you a more accurate speed test no matter what you’re using the internet for.
Many “free or community” VPN services are known for selling and harvesting personal information, so do some research on both free and fee-based VPN options. Look for services that meet your needs and have complimentary reviews to be sure that you’re helping your efforts and not inviting more devious activity into your network.
Compare speed test #1 and #2
Take your results from speed test #1 and #2 and compare. If your results are similar, that’s a good indication that your provider is not throttling your internet speeds. If your VPN speed test result is much faster, your provider may be throttling your speeds. Keep in mind that the use of a VPN will decrease your internet speed, but ideally, it shouldn’t have a noticeable impact.
Compare your results to advertised speeds
If both of your speed test results match, take a look at that number compared to the speeds you’ve been promised by your ISP. According to FCC reports, most internet subscribers receive speeds that meet or exceed those advertised by their provider.
Some DSL and satellite subscribers, on the other hand, received speeds lower than the advertised “up to” speeds of their provider. If your speed test results differ greatly from what you’ve been paying for from month-to-month, it may be time to think about switching internet service providers.
Should you be worried about internet throttling?
“There are a number of reasons consumers should be concerned about throttling,” Choffnes said. First and foremost is the fact that consumers paying for internet service expect to be able to use the internet in any lawful way they want, subject to constraints on available bandwidth and data quotas.
Another reason is the quality of content. According to Choffnes, “throttling typically leads to lower-resolution video streaming, meaning that videos are blurry even though both the network and our screens support higher-resolution content.”
Lastly, throttling could affect competition among providers. For instance, as part of their study, they found that in some cases YouTube is throttled but other providers, like Vimeo, are not.
How to stop ISP throttling
If you’ve found that your provider is throttling your internet, there’s not much you can do to stop it if you’re committed to staying with your current provider at your current price point. Browsing on a VPN network or upgrading may be your best solution.
“In some cases, users can turn off throttling (e.g., disabling Stream Saver on AT&T.) In other cases, one can purchase a data plan that does not include throttling, usually at a higher price,” Choffnes said.
Looking to switch internet providers after your speed tests? Try a provider with more data to fit all your online activities. Call us to speak with TV and internet experts about providers and speeds in your area.
Originally published on 01/29/19. Last updated on 10/14/20.
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Written by:Taylor Gadsden
Writer, Broadband & Wireless Content
Taylor is a veteran member of the Allconnect content team and has spearheaded a number of projects, including a data piece on the top fiber cities in the U.S. and a troubleshooting guide on how to connect your p… Read more
Edited by:Trey Paul
Editor, Head of Content
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