What is internet throttling
Officially called “bandwidth throttling” or “traffic shaping”, it is the intentional slowing down (or possibly speeding up, if that ever happens) of your internet connection by your ISP. It can be employed during set hours, or to target specific areas of activity.
By using deep packet inspection (DPI) at its servers, the ISP can check the files that pass through them. As such, an ISP can throttle your download (and upload) speeds when using video streaming, torrents, or other bandwidth-intensive activities.
Sometimes, internet throttling occurs somewhat naturally. Data caps are the artificial restrictions placed on how much data the user can transfer over a given period of time. They are usually mentioned in the contract and thus are part of the service.
There are also slowdowns that can occur due to high network traffic. The load at peak hours can be greater than usual, clogging up the bandwidth. This isn’t something the ISP is responsible for – aside from not increasing the network capacity – and you can hardly get around it.
What I mean by “internet throttling” is the ISP secretly and artificially slowing down your internet speed.
Why do ISPs throttle internet
Let me start with the most benign reason why an ISP might be throttling your connection. First of all, you might be running into a data cap.
In 2020, we all expect to have unlimited internet, but not all ISPs are so generous. AT&T, Viasat, and Xfinity are among the US ISPs that have actual data caps imposed. Go over the limit, and the ISP might throttle your internet instead of entirely disconnecting you. This may be a familiar feeling if you ever exceeded your mobile data plan.
Another way where your ISP can throttle your internet semi-justifiably is when it comes to network congestion. Peak hours – usually between 7 PM and 10 PM – is when most people get online. To ensure that every user gets at least some piece of the online pie, an ISP may employ blanket internet throttling. That way, everyone is affected equally.
However, what we should be most concerned about is the selective throttling of internet activity. ISPs claim that throttling streaming, gaming, torrents, etc. helps them serve users who don’t use bandwidth-intensive stuff. This means that users who do use those services wouldn’t be getting the service they paid for. The ISP saves money by serving more users without increasing network capacity.
Internet throttling can also be a bargaining chip – also known as “paid prioritization.” A big ISP can slow down their users’ access to an app or a website and then ask their developers to pay for the privilege of not being throttled. It’s already an extortion practice.
What’s worse, it gives a competitive advantage to established businesses. They can pay the bill to overcome bandwidth throttling – unlike new companies.
Internet throttling and net neutrality
Internet throttling also goes against the principle of net neutrality. It’s the idea that ISPs move data without privileging some streams above others. In the ideal world of net neutrality, the ISP doesn’t judge their traffic on any criteria.
Under such circumstances, all apps, websites, and protocols would have the same priority when it comes to bandwidth allocation. Also, new sites and apps would get the same amount of possible traffic as the big, established ones.
This would mean that you can freely go wherever you want without any artificial drops of speed. It would also lead to better things as the large tech companies would be forced to compete with the small ones on the quality of their product and not their ability to pay for privileges to reach the homes of consumers.
The US law implementing net neutrality was famously struck down in 2017. However, ISPs in countries around the world have been known to throttle the internet. European regulation for that was laid down in 2015. However, it has been criticized for certain loopholes. Operators such as Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom had been told to change their practices when they breached neutrality.
If you have internet with a data cap, you’re more likely to use so-called “zero-rating” websites and services as these don’t count against your data limit. Being a zero-rated service on a widely-used ISP is a great boon for a company, and so it’s enticing for them to strike a deal.
Outside of data caps, sometimes companies sign deals with ISPs to actually boost their speeds, as Netflix had to do with Comcast and Verizon when their speeds dropped in 2014.
A small thing you might not notice when it comes to internet throttling is slow-loading websites. We’re pretty much used to all sites loading instantly. Research suggests that a 1 second delay can result in an 11% decrease in page views, 7% fewer sales, and a drop of 16% in customer satisfaction.
In such a case, the IPS doesn’t even have to block and discriminate against a new website actively. It can merely give preferential treatment to some larger company, thus passively choking out the competition.
How to find out if you’re being throttled
To find out if your ISP is throttling your internet, you may have to do a few tests. A simple internet speed test isn’t usually enough to show whether you’re being throttled. Remember, the ISP can be shaping only a specific segment of your traffic.
- Check your contract. It should list what speed you should be getting for the money you’re paying. You may also discover data caps and other pesky details you may have forgotten.
- Do a regular speed test. You may use the famous Ookla speed test or something similar. This is to establish your speed baseline. If it’s much lower than the speed listed on the contract, something is wrong.
- Do the Fast.com test. This is a Netflix-based test that may show if your ISP is throttling the internet for Netflix.
- Download the Wehe app. It’s a speed test app created by the Northeast University. Wehe tests the speed for a variety of services. It also contributes to research into net neutrality violations.
- Try the Internet Health Test. It is a more detailed test that shows how much the speed changes when your traffic moves from server to server. A drop of more than 25% can indicate throttling.
- Get on the Google Video Quality Report. Less universal than the other tests (not all regions are available), it shows what YouTube video quality you can expect – and how other local ISPs stack up against yours.
How to stop ISP speed throttling
You have two main options when it comes to combating ISP throttling your internet speed:
Find another ISP
This is the slow and inconvenient option. That is especially true when timed contracts are involved. But when push comes to shove, you can research your locally available ISPs and choose one that doesn’t throttle bandwidth.
Get a VPN
As we mentioned before, throttling the internet relies on DPI, which inspects your data. A VPN app creates an encrypted connection between you and your desired online destination. If you use a VPN app, your ISP can’t read your traffic and thus throttle it.
Having a VPN has many other benefits that improve your security and accessibility:
Hide your activities online: encryption that prevents DPI scanning also prevents the ISP from recording your online activity metadata. Nobody can eavesdrop on you now.
Unlock streaming libraries: so you overcame your ISP throttling streaming. However, your streaming service may have geo-locked some of the best content you want to see. Access it anywhere, anytime, with a VPN by changing your virtual location.
Stay private while gaming: you have now unthrottled your gaming. But you know what you also did? You changed your IP, making it hard for angry losers online to SWAT you or cause other unpleasantness.
Keep the ads at bay: now that you’re getting the full internet experience, you may want to get rid of ads. A VPN like Surfshark and its CleanWeb feature will prevent them from following you around online.
To sum it up
Without laws mandating net neutrality, ISPs are free to throttle the internet as much as they want. They may call it “traffic shaping,” but what it means is that you’re not getting what you’re paying for.
Do a few easy internet connection tests to find out if your ISP is throttling your connection. If that’s the case, consider changing the ISP. Or better yet, choose the faster option and get a VPN app.