If you’re a regular web user, and particularly if you use things like torrent clients or streaming services like Netflix, you probably pay attention to your web speed. If you notice that the speed rises and falls, or experiences extended dips where speeds are well below the advertised rate, you may well be the victim of internet throttling.
Every internet user pays for a certain amount of bandwidth, but the small print in their deals with ISPs can often make this bandwidth surprisingly flexible. And there are signs that ISPs are flexing their muscles as the demise of net neutrality looms. So it’s a good time to take a look at what causes limited bandwidth and how to bypass ISP throttling.
What is internet throttling?
None of this would be possible without the ability of ISPs to “throttle” internet connections. But what does this term actually mean? It’s really pretty simple.
If you look at internet connections like a set of faucets set on maximum, throttling involves tweaking the handle to reduce the flow – whenever the ISP desires.
Is ISP throttling legal?
Discriminating between web users and limiting bandwidth is unfair and illegal
Internet throttling is not generally part of the contracts signed between customers and ISPs. So when people ask is ISP throttling legal, the answer is unclear. Generally accepted rules governing access to the internet (the Open Internet Rules), suggest that discriminating between web users and limiting bandwidth is unfair and illegal.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) tested this principle in Comcast Corp. v. FCC back in 2007 and the ISP was found to be unlawfully limiting web connections. But throttling still happens to manage data flows, whether it’s legal or not, and changes to net neutrality rules seem set to make it standard practice.
Why is my ISP throttling my connection?
So why are ISPs so keen to implement this controversial practice? Firstly, it’s important to note that not all ISPs have confirmed that they restrict bandwidth, and not all do so. It’s definitely bad PR to be unmasked as a “throttler” when you promise “unlimited” data packages, so many ISPs still keep it at a distance.
When throttling is used, there could be a number of motivations. From one perspective, sometimes ISPs simply want to keep their networks as efficient as possible. By operating firm restrictions for heavy data users, they can avoid bandwidth congestion and keep speeds high for others at a lower cost. So they often resort to ISP throttling YouTube addicts or torrenters.
But there might be other reasons. For instance, ISPs might want to limit access to streaming sites like Netflix until users have paid them a fee to use them. Or they may wish to divert users onto premium tariffs. And there can be law enforcement reasons too. Instead of prosecuting individuals for illegal file-sharing or streaming, authorities may find it easier to make sharing services harder to use by tracking and blocking torrenting activities.
How to tell if ISP is throttling your internet
One of the annoying things about internet throttling is the mystery that surrounds it. For ordinary web users, massive drops in performance can come out of the blue and ruin their online experience. Thankfully, it’s possible to tell if an ISP is throttling the internet, and you don’t need to be an expert engineer.
Here are three ways to check if your ISP is throttling your connection:
- Run an ISP throttling test. To do so, you can download a bandwidth meter at SpeedTest.net. These tools run time-limited speed assessments which show peaks and troughs and can indicate suspicious restrictions.
- Run a video streaming test. Google offers a Video Quality Report, which lets you know how fast videos are streaming via your ISP.
- Run a torrenting speed test. You have to download a speed test torrent from BTGuard VPN, which is a Linux installation file. If the speed is less than what you’d expect, most likely the issue is either on your side or the ISPs.
The key is to measure your connection speeds regularly and over a sustained period. Data points from 5-7 days in a row will provide a clear answer to whether your ISP is throttling your connection.
Is your ISP throttling torrents? Ways to find out
To start with, you’ll need a baseline download speed, and you can get this from SpeedTest.net. Now, start a test download in your client. Pick something popular and legal – a Linux build should do. Watch the download closely – if the speed reaches your baseline download speed – your ISP isn’t throttling your connection (or at least your torrents aren’t being singled out).
Check how fast the torrent “accelerates” to top speed as well. If it takes 10 minutes or more, a subtle kind of ISP throttling torrents could be in operation.
What about Netflix? Can I tell if my ISP is limiting streaming speeds?
BitTorrent throttling isn’t the only thing to worry about. Some ISPs have also started to target completely legitimate streaming services. For example, you may find your ISP throttling Netflix if you go above certain download limits. But how can you detect this?
For that, Netflix has its speed test at Fast.com that shows your connection quality with their servers. You can compare the results with the ones from your regular speed test and see if there’s anything to complain about.
What’s more, Netflix publishes its ISP Speed Index that shows the average speeds of different providers in the world. As of June 2019, the fastest ISP in the US was Verizon – FiOS with 4.45 Mbps, while AT&T – DSL managed a pedestrian 3.03 Mbps.
As always, it might not be deliberate throttling, but if your numbers are significantly lower, there’s a good chance your ISP is targeting your Netflix connection.
How to stop the ISP from throttling your connection with a VPN
Whether you think you’re suffering from P2P or Netflix throttling, there are some ways to respond. That’s the beauty of the open web, as long as it lasts: people constantly fight to prevent corporations from enclosing bandwidth, and they are doing so pretty successfully.
However, before you do anything, explore some official channels. Remember what we said earlier – internet throttling isn’t strictly legal. If you’ve carried out a comprehensive throttling test and you’ve got solid evidence, tell your ISP and make a complaint. They will probably back down, assuming they admit wrongdoing.
Also, you can prevent ISP throttling by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). VPNs are a great solution to stop ISP throttling because they make it very hard for ISPs to link data packets to your account. So, in theory, you can use a good VPN to use P2P, YouTube, or Netflix as much as you like without speed limitations.
Not all VPNs are effective, though, so it helps to run through a few standouts which tend to get the job done.
5 best VPNs to prevent ISP throttling
These VPNs are popular anti-throttling tools. They tend to have good user interfaces, a wide range of protocols, anonymity (no third party data leaks), plenty of servers worldwide, and support for all major devices.
Registered in Panama, a country with no data retention laws, NordVPN has created a system which is virtually immune to IP leaks and is famed for its security and reliability.
2. Surfshark VPN
Registered in the Netherlands, this service comes with a no-logs policy, no leaks, and great performance. But most importantly – Surfshark VPN allows an unlimited number of simultaneous connections per account.
CyberGhost is a Romanian VPN which specializes in multi-platform usage, so you can easily stretch it between and beyond tablets, laptops, or smartphones. A large server portfolio and a 45-day money-back guarantee trial make it doubly appealing.
Throttling is, unfortunately, becoming a fact of life for web users worldwide. From TV series on Netflix and movies on Hulu to kids videos on YouTube, plus live sports on ESPN and torrents, throttling can ruin many of the online world’s entertainment sources.
Don’t let this happen to you. Carry out throttling tests and educate yourself about how to tell if your ISP is throttling your connection, and invest in a good VPN. Don’t let the vested interests limit your enjoyment. Take action right now to stop ISP throttling.
Julie is a firm believer in equal rights for everyone. She is a traveler and blogger, focusing her efforts on exposing censorship and discrimination around the world. She wants to hold corrupt governments and shady companies accountable by writing investigative articles and helpful guides.