Table of Contents
- 1 Your Internet Connection Speed
- 2 Internet Access Over a VPN
- 3 When a VPN Can Improve Internet Speeds
- 4 When a VPN Won't Improve Internet Performance
- 5 Best VPN for Faster Internet
- 6 The Bottom Line
For the average internet user, the concept of internet speed begins and ends with the numbers that their internet service provider (ISP) uses to sell their services. ISPs boil down internet speeds into theoretical maximums to justify the ever-increasing prices they charge.
Despite the grand promises, it's common to find connection performance lacking when put to the test under normal usage.
In search of a way to increase internet speed, some of us try turning to VPNs. Plenty of commercial services claim that they offer speed improvements. There are also plenty of tech experts that insist that isn't true.
The truth lies somewhere in between and to explain it I put together this guide. In it, I'll briefly talk about the basics of real-world internet speeds and will help you understand when those speeds might be helped (or hurt) by using a VPN.
Your Internet Connection Speed
If you have performed an internet speed test you should be familiar with (or at least have seen) things like ping times and download and upload speeds. Chances are, you arrived at that speed test page to try to get to the bottom of why your internet service felt slow, or why you were unable to stream a video smoothly.
In many cases, the test returns results which indicate that the connection is more than fast enough to handle the content you're is trying to access. There's a reason for that seemingly contradictory information.
Network Performance Factors
Online, connections to websites and services traverse a complex network. That network is under the control of countless individuals and companies all over the globe. That's the reason for the name World Wide Web. The structure of the underlying network most closely resembles a spider web of interconnected machines.
When performing a speed test, the test data usually doesn't ever leave the ISP's network. So, the results don't always reflect reality. On the other hand, when you visit a site, you have no control over the path your data takes to reach its destination. You also cannot control the network conditions along that path.
In the real world, things like network congestion, hardware failures, and denial-of-service attacks can bring even the fastest internet connection to its knees. And those are only a few of the things you may encounter on a regular basis.
Internet Access Over a VPN
A VPN service provides an encrypted and secure connection between you and the VPN service provider. From there, your internet traffic reaches its destination in the same way that it would have, had it come directly from the your device.
It's a useful tool for anyone who wishes to prevent others from seeing the contents of their web traffic. It’s also a favorite of those that prefer to remain anonymous online.
The nature of a VPN connection means that web traffic no longer takes the most direct path possible. It first has to flow through the servers of the VPN service provider. The encryption of the traffic and the change in the data path can sometimes speed up a slow internet connection. However, it all depends on the reasons it was slow in the first place.
When a VPN Can Improve Internet Speeds
There are some situations when using a VPN may improve internet speeds. For example, if your connection is slow due to delays in the typical data path. By having to go to a server first, a VPN connection might solve the problem by avoiding the parts of the path that are causing the slowness.
You may also experience a speed boost if your traffic is destined for a network that has a better connection with the VPN provider's network than your ISP does. Both those conditions aren't all that common, however.
One of the most common causes of internet slowness is bandwidth throttling, and it is something that a VPN can help stop. ISPs often resort to controlling traffic in this way, often without as much as a notification that it's happening. It can be one of the most frustrating causes of a slow internet connection. Not only is it difficult to detect, but it's also a slowdown which is being inflicted purposefully.
Bandwidth Throttling Explained
If you've never heard of it, bandwidth throttling refers to a situation when an ISP deliberately slows down traffic for a specific type of data. It can also happen when you reach a predetermined data transfer limit.
It's a practice which is likely to become even more common among American ISPs. This is in no small part thanks to the FCC removing regulations which ensured net neutrality. When an ISP resorts to bandwidth throttling, they most often target very specific types of data. This reason is why the practice is so irritating and difficult to detect.
In many cases, ISPs throttle traffic which uses the BitTorrent protocol. They will also often target high-bandwidth connections to video streaming services like Netflix or Hulu.
In the case of BitTorrent, ISPs claim that their throttling controls intellectual property theft and piracy on their networks. That, however, is not exactly true. They do it because BitTorrent generates a good chunk of the total traffic on the internet. They like to target video streaming platforms for the same reason - they are rapidly becoming the most significant source of internet traffic worldwide.
ISPs actively monitor for the types of traffic that they wish to control and aggressively act to slow down those specific connections. They will also often act ignorant of the practice when you call them out on it. Instead, ISPs will often try to sell you a more expensive internet speed tier instead.
A VPN, however, can help you stop your ISP from interfering with your traffic altogether.
How Does a VPN Stop Bandwidth Throttling
If you're dealing with targeted bandwidth throttling by your ISP, a VPN is an excellent way to solve the problem. The secret lies in the anonymity that a VPN provides.
ISPs determine which traffic to throttle based on a set of predetermined identification rules. For instance, they may look for connections to specific servers online, or traffic that uses common ports they would like to restrict.
When a VPN is in use, however, all traffic is encrypted and appears to be destined for the VPN server, instead of its actual final destination. This leaves the ISP unable to classify the traffic passing over the VPN connection. If they can’t identify it, they can't throttle it. This inability to act very effectively shields you from intentional slowdowns.
When a VPN Won't Improve Internet Performance
Unfortunately, a VPN isn't a solution for every cause of a slow internet connection. In some situations, they can even make things slower than it otherwise would be.
In fact, there are several instances when you may be better off disabling your VPN altogether. These include:
- Geographic Distance
If the VPN server location is on the other side of the world from you and further still from the final destination of your data, the additional distance the data needs to travel will decrease the overall speed of the connection. Pick a VPN provider with a large number of server locations to choose from to help avoid this issue.
- VPN Server Congestion
If the VPN server that the data must pass through is overloaded, it becomes a choke point which will result in a slower connection. If this happens, try switching to a lightly loaded server instead. Just about all VPN providers let you do this.
- Encryption Latency
On a VPN, all outbound data must be encrypted, and all incoming data must be decrypted. Since this process occurs in real time, it may add a sometimes noticeable delay on older or lower-spec devices. Check your VPN client settings and only select as high of encryption as you need.
There are also several other things you can do to try and speed up your VPN connection for those situations when turning it off is either not possible or not desirable.
Best VPN for Faster Internet
If you're looking for a VPN service to prevent bandwidth throttling or for one which will give you the best shot at improving your internet's performance, right off the bat avoid free providers.
One of the big differences between paid and free is performance. Free VPN servers are notorious for being overloaded, and an overloaded server always results in slower speeds. There's just no way around it.
Just based on that fact alone, premium providers are the way to go. Yes, they cost money, but it's probably less than you may be thinking. You can easily get a subscription to some of the top VPNs for as little as a few dollars per month. That subscription gets you access to hundreds of VPN servers worldwide. All those server use top of the line hardware and all implementing proper user load balancing.
As part of running this site, I regularly measure the performance of dozens of VPNs. While I invite you to take a look at my full list of the fastest providers, below are the top three. These are by far your best bet to stop bandwidth throttling and increase the download and upload speeds of your internet connection.
The Bottom Line
Generally speaking, a VPN isn't going to serve as a reliable way to increase internet speeds, unless you're dealing with some very specific causes. Of course, a VPN does offer privacy and security as well. So, even if it won't speed up your internet, in many cases, it still is an excellent investment.
If you do have a slow connection, first try to identify the cause of the problem before turning to a VPN as a potential solution. An excellent place to start is to test for bandwidth throttling. If throttling is indeed the culprit, using one of the above VPNs should make a big difference and help increase your internet speed. If the problem lies elsewhere, however, it might be an issue best left to the ISP itself.