Most people are not well educated about this. This is not helped by scare tactics, such as the widespread posting of part of the price page of a Portuguese cellphone provider purporting to show an ISP charging for access to Facebook.
In fact, the prices were extra mobile data for specific purposes, which while it might be seen as “evil,” is not quite the same thing as your broadband provider blocking access to sites until you pay extra.
However, the fact is that net neutrality helped protect privacy as well as ensuring your Netflix stream would be at reasonable speed.
What Are ISPs Actually Doing?
So, scare tactics aside, what are ISPs actually doing now net neutrality has been repealed? No provider has yet started to charge extra for access to major (or minor) sites. However, most major cell phone providers are now throttling streaming services, especially Youtube.
Ostensibly, this is to stop people from hogging bandwidth, but they tend to do it even when the network is quiet. Verizon got into huge trouble for throttling a fire department that was trying to coordinate things during a major wildfire, and for demanding more money as a kind of ransom to stop.
In the past, various ISPs have done things such as throttling VoIP connections into unusability to try and sell landline phone service. This has not become rampant yet, but it might. The same might happen with streaming services.
Many ISPs are also cable TV providers, and slowing down Netflix would help them sell cable. Extracting money from Netflix has already happened in some cases. Other past violations of net neutrality include throttling peer-to-peer file sharing (which can also affect some business networks), blocking Skype, blocking certain mobile payment systems, blocking streaming services on phones and even hijacking search queries to their own search engine.
All of this is now legal, although it seems that ISPs are hesitant to actually go too far, especially on mobile where there is more competition.
Overseas, although it is not as egregious as stated, the Portuguese telecom that charges extra for extra bandwidth for specific services is real. (A version of this that existed even before the rules were overturned was cell providers allowing a specific music streaming service to bypass data limits. In this case, the service was paying for the extra bandwidth. This could easily happen with, say, Netflix).
As many of us have only one or two choices of broadband provider, especially if you live in an apartment or condo, then the need to find workarounds to avoid throttling or blocking can be key for some people. It is particularly important for gamers, cord cutters, and people who routinely work from home. The best way to do so is to subscribe to a VPN service.
How Can a VPN Help?
A VPN can help get around throttling for one simple reason: when you are using a VPN, your ISP can’t tell what kind of traffic is actually going over your network. They can potentially tell it is VPN traffic, but they can’t tell which websites you are going to or what kind of data is being transmitted.
Because of this, using a VPN can help keep your ISP from slowing down specific services or types of services, and may even get around content blocks. It can also keep them from selling your search history to advertisers.
However, your ISP may attempt to block or throttle VPN traffic, or to throttle all traffic it can’t identify. They may also try to work with specific VPN providers to get access to the data they want to obtain and sell.
What if Your ISP Blocks VPNs?
In theory, an ISP could block the use of VPNs, or charge extra for their use. They could also only allow the use of certain VPNs. However, no major US broadband ISP is currently blocking VPN use. Cell phones can be more of an issue.
Doing so could be a PR nightmare as many people work from home and are obliged to use their company’s VPN. However, when choosing a VPN, try to choose one which does not use static IPs, which makes it much harder for your ISP (or boss, or university) to block or throttle your ability to use VPN.
Some VPNs will go out of their way to obfuscate (hide) that they are VPNs in order to prevent throttling or blocking. Basically, obfuscation means that your traffic is “camouflaged” to look normal.
However, in some cases, if your router is provided by your ISP, you may have to change some settings on the router to be able to use a VPN network. Most ISPs will be cooperative and provide the information needed to do so, but you may have to hunt it down from peer support in some cases.
An alternative is to buy your own router, but be aware that not all routers are compatible with all services, especially if you have fiber optic to end user with the television service running through the internet. For example, Verizon FiOS requires a router with a coax connection if you have television service.
As a note, some providers are now selling their own VPN services. Needless to say, it is unwise to use a VPN provided by an ISP, as they are likely to use it (like many free VPN services) to protect your data from others while selling it themselves.
What VPN Should I Use?
You should, as mentioned, use a VPN that takes steps to protect you from the VPN itself being blocked or throttled. Avoid free VPNs and VPNs provided by the ISP, for the reasons mentioned above.
Make sure that the VPN has clients for all of your devices, and that the clients run well on your hardware. Some VPNs have a simultaneous connection limit, so make sure it is generous enough for your needs.
On top of that, to be completely sure, check if your provider offers obfuscation (wink-wink, Surfshark’s servers are obfuscated by default).
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