Have you experiencing the telltale signs of throttling?
- Videos the re-buffer or stream in lower resolution
- Excessive lag while gaming
- Slow file downloads (especially on p2p networks).
And if you’re here, you already suspect that something fishy is going on. You’re concerned that you’re not getting 100% of the speed you’re paying for.
And you might be right.
Because data throttling is increasingly common, but widely misunderstood. So I’m here to set the record straight… and teach you how to fix it.
In this guide, you’ll learn:
- What throttling is (and what it isn’t)
- Why ISP’s and mobile carriers throttle traffic
- Which Internet Providers use throttling?
- What type of data gets throttled
- How to tell if you’re being throttled
- How to detect, prevent & bypass internet throttling
What is throttling?
Bandwidth throttling (also known as traffic-shaping) is the technique of limiting internet speeds at certain times of day, or for specific websites, services, and data types (such as video).
Throttling most often affects high-bandwidth activities like: video streaming, gaming, and file-sharing (especially p2p networks like BitTorrent).
How Throttling Works
When throttling traffic, an ISP will filter internet traffic, and divide it into two buckets. Here’s a typical scenario:
- Fast Lane: This is the unthrottled bucket which contains things like: web-browsing, social media, Google.
- Slow Lane: Throttled traffic might include: Youtube videos, Cord-cutting video packages, Hulu, Netflix, and BitTorrent.
Why do ISP’s Throttle your Data?
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) engage in bandwidth data throttling to save money.
By limiting speeds for certain users or websites, your ISP can reduce the data usage on their entire network. This allows them to serve more customers without increasing their network capacity (increasing their profit margin)?
Is it fair? Not really.
Is it legal? In the USA, throttling is legal now (thanks to the repeal of Net Neutrality in 2017).
Different Types of Throttling
Not all bandwidth-shaping is the same.
Some ISP’s restrict bandwidth at certain times of day (like peak hours after work).
Others cap your data after a certain daily or monthly quota.
Those first 2 types (while common) are often obvious and usually written into your subscriber agreement.
But the more insidious traffic-shaping techniques are those that slow specific web services and protocols, making your experience worse without reducing your overall internet speed. And this type is harder to detect (and prove) which is why several broadband providers have (mostly) gotten away with it for years.
Commonly Throttled Websites & Traffic Types
- HD Video: Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Twitch
- Gaming: WoW, League of Legends, Fortnite
- File-sharing: BitTorrent, Usenet, RDP
Affected Operating Systems
Bandwidth shaping can affect any OS or device manufacturer, including Apple, Windows/PC, iOS and Android. Mobile data is more likely to be throttled, due to the bandwidth constraints of mobile networks.
How to Detect Throttling
Traffic-shaping technology is incredibly advanced. It took years to learn that Comcast was using Sandvine ‘congestion management’ software. And many other ISP’s have denied using similar techniques precisely because it’s so hard to prove (and there’s hardly any penalty for getting caught).
Why a speedtest isn’t enough
Detecting throttling isn’t as easy as running an internet speedtest.
Because most throttling occurs at the protocol level. They could restrict your video streams to a lower resolution, while your overall bandwidth maximum doesn’t change. Of course, it’s very hard to reach your maximum bandwidth if all the high-bandwidth uses are throttled individually.
Tools to detect Throttling
There are a couple free online tools that are designed to detect bandwidth manipulation by your internet provider. Our all-time favorite was the Glasnost project, but it has (sadly) been discontinued.
The best alternative to Glasnost is The Internet Health Test.
1. Internet Health Test
The internet health test is a free web-app developed by FightForTheFuture. While it can’t measure specific protocols like video, p2p, etc, it checks your performance across the largest backbone networks (where services like Netflix and YouTube host their data) to see if there are any obvious bottlenecks.
Understanding the results:
Here are the results when I tested my internet connection (Verizon Fios):
As you can see, there is a small but consistent slow-down for Level 3-hosted services. But the picture gets much worse when connecting to Tata, with a near 90% reduction in speeds (and evidence of probable throttling).
While some slight speed drop-off is expected due to distance and packet-loss, anything over 25% is quite suspicious.
2. The Youtube Test (Manual)
The Youtube Throttling Test is an unscientific (but easy) way to quickly tell if your ISP is limiting your video bandwidth.
How to perform the test:
- Open a 4k video like this one
- Make sure you select 4k resolution from the settings cog
- Play the video at full screen resolution and see if it buffers more than once
- If it does buffer, drop the resolution and retry.
- Repeat until you reach the resolution that doesn’t require buffering. This is your effective video bandwidth.
Then check your resolution against the following chart of YouTube bitrates to get an estimate of your video bandwidth.
Understanding the Results:
You should compare your video bit-rate against your overall internet speed as tested by a site like SpeedOfMe.
If your video bandwidth is significantly lower than your tested internet speed?
That’s evidence of possible throttling.
Next up, I’ll show you how to do something about it.
The best way to STOP Throttling: Use a VPN
As you already learned, throttling requires separating traffic into different buckets, and limiting speeds for some traffic.
Legally, your ISP can’t slow all your traffic if you’re paying for a specific internet speed (100Mbps for example).
So to block throttling, all you have to do is prevent your ISP from viewing and separating your traffic.
And to do this, we’ll use a Virtual Private Network (VPN).
In simple terms, a VPN wraps all internet traffic (to and from your device) in an unbreakable layer of encryption.
This accomplishes 2 things:
- Prevents your ISP from seeing what services, websites and protocols you’re using.
- Stops your ISP from separating your traffic (because 100% of your traffic is encrypted and routed to the remote VPN server).
Using a VPN for Throttling
Not only is a VPN the best, most effective tool for the job; it’s also 1-click easy-to-use. And you’ll know pretty much immediately whether it will work to speed up your video streams and p2p downloads.
Previously, when I was a Spectrum (Time Warner Cable) subscriber, Youtube was heavily throttled. By connecting to a VPN, I was able to go from 720p resolution to 4k instantly.
The Best VPNs to block Throttling
There are the VPNs I recommend highest to circumvent throttling. I prioritized providers with the fastest server speeds (4k-capable) and strong encryption.
Good (Fast) VPNs to try:
How to use the VPN to bypass throttling
Blocking throttling with a VPN is dead simple.
- Sign up for a VPN
- Download the VPN software on your device(s)
- Sign in with your username/password
- Choose a server location (usually nearby) and click ‘Connect’
- That’s it! Your connection is encrypted, and throttling should be bypassed
Summary & Additional Tips
Throttling is (increasingly) widespread in the U.S. and abroad. It affects all internet-connected devices, and especially mobile devices.
You’ll most often notice evidence of throttling while:
- Watching HD video
How to fix it:
The most effective (and easiest) solution is to use a high quality, fast VPN service like IPVanish.
Will it work?
In most cases, a VPN will help you stream video at higher resolutions (without buffering) and download torrents and share/download files at high speeds. It can even get around video-resolution limits on unlimited data plans.
Cases where you can’t fix throttling:
If your ISP thottles all traffic at certain times of day, or caps your speeds after a certain amount of data usage, then a VPN (nor any other tool) can save you. For more info, read our guide to circumventing data caps.