If you’re a regular web user, and particularly if you use things like torrent clients or streaming services like Netflix, 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.
ComCast have made the first moves towards a two-tier internet
To web observers, the warning signs are mounting. In early July, the mobile and home internet giant ComCast announced some worrying new measures. Targeted mainly at mobile users (for now), ComCast will soon be limiting the connections of some customers, diverting them to slower 3G connections, when 4G is available, and restricting video resolution to a maximum of 480p.
The company says that the measures are intended to prevent the need for throttling, which they admit kicks in on their Xfinity Unlimited package when customers use 20GB in one billing period.
However, while they are introducing limited bandwidth for mobile users, ComCast is also introducing faster premium packages called By the Gig – effectively limiting the fastest web connections to richer customers.
So there are good reasons why Comcast customers would ask themselves “is my ISP throttling my connection.” They almost certainly are.
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 just involves tweaking the handle to reduce the flow – whenever the ISP desires.
Is ISP throttling legal?
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 ISPs 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 do 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, 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. So they often resort to ISP throttling YouTube addicts or torrenters.
But as we’ve seen, there are 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 want 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 simply make sharing services harder to use.
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 ISP is throttling the internet, and you don’t need to be an expert engineer.
- Firstly, you’ll need to run an ISP throttling test. You can download specialist software to do so, such as the bandwidth meter at SpeedTest.net. These tools run time-limited speed assessments which show peaks and troughs, and can indicate suspicious restrictions.
- Then there are more specific ISP throttling test tools. For instance, Google offers something called a Video Quality Report which lets you know how fast videos are streaming via your ISP.
- There are also specialist tools to find out whether your ISP is throttling torrents. The Nexa Center has come up with Neubot, which is one of the easiest to use. If you leave it in the background while you torrent, it can tell whether your client is being throttled, and separate this from standard HTTP speeds.
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 the question is my ISP throttling my connection.
Is your ISP throttling torrents? Ways to find out
Before moving on to ways to bypass throttling, it’s worth saying a bit more about how BitTorrent throttling works, because it’s something that many readers will be engaged in right now.
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, you’re not being throttled (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?
If you discover your ISP throttling Netflix, testing this is actually quite fun. Go to Netflix and load up “Example Short 23.976”. You’ll see some data on the screen, and a quirky short film too. While this is running, set up a few downloads (that aren’t torrents) and put your bandwidth through its paces. If the bandwidth metric on the film (shown in kbs) decreased significantly, that means your Netflix connection has been limited in some way.
It might not be deliberate throttling, but there’s a good chance your ISP is targeting your Netflix connection.
How to stop an ISP throttling an internet connection
Whether you think you’re suffering from BitTorrent throttling or ISP throttling YouTube is taking place, 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. The thing is, you need solid evidence, and many people won’t have it.
In that case, VPNs are your friend. Virtual Private Networks 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 BitTorrent, YouTube or NetFlix as much as you like.
Some VPNs are totally free and do a reasonable job. However, many of the most reliable come with a subscription charge – just like any other essential service. Not all VPNs are effective, though, so it helps to run through a few standouts which tend to get the job done.
How to stop ISP throttling: the 5 best VPNs around
These VPNs are popular anti-throttling tools. They tend to have some things in common: good user interfaces, a wide range of protocols, total anonymity (no third party data leaks), plenty of servers worldwide, and support for all major devices. But there are some differences which could condition your choices.
PureVPN – Based in Hong Kong, PureVPN offers a slick, accessible way to bypass ISP throttling. They have set up an impressive 790 servers around the world to support their network, while their automated kill switch provides almost fail-safe privacy protection. A solid bet.
CyberGhost – CyberGhost is a Romanian VPN which specializes in multi-platform usage, so you can easily stretch it between iPads, laptops, and smartphones. A large server portfolio and free 7-day trials make it doubly appealing.
NordVPN – Located in the Central American nation of Panama, which is noted for its secrecy concerns, NordVPN have created a system which is virtually immune to IP leaks and is famed for its reliability.
TunnelBear – A Canadian outfit this time, TunnelBear is ideal for getting around BitTorrent throttling and times when your ISP is throttling Netflix. Its accessible UI and cheap packages make it great for newbies.
VyprVPN – Hard to spell but easy to use, it is the leading VPN in privacy-obsessed Switzerland. More than 700 servers located all over the globe provide a massive network and almost total privacy, and there are features to optimize streaming without the slowdown that some VPNs can cause.
Breathe easily online by protecting against internet throttling
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, live sports on ESPN and – as we know – p2p sharing sites 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 ISP is throttling your connection, and invest in a good VPN. Don’t let the vested interests limit your enjoyment. Take action right now and stop ISP throttling.