How to Stop ISP Data Throttling

You may have noticed that sometimes, your internet connection speeds are far slower than they should be. And that it often happens when you use specific websites or services.

In some cases, these issues can be chalked up to simple network congestion. In a few others, they might have resulted from hardware failures or other maintenance-related activity.

But, there may also be another, more nefarious reason for a sudden slowdown in internet speed. Your internet service provider may be deliberately throttling your traffic.

It might come as a shock that your ISP could be intentionally slowing down your internet connections. But sadly, it does happen.

In fact, it was Comcast’s policy of throttling the BitTorrent protocol in 2007 that most directly led to the FCC’s adoption of updated net neutrality rules in 2015. Long story short, the FCC made the practice illegal.

Unfortunately for us internet users, those rules have recently been repealed. And so, it’s once again open seasons for ISPs to throttle data they don’t like.

At this point, the best defense against this type of activity is a well-informed public. And with that in mind, I’ve written this guide. It will help you understand what internet throttling is and how ISPs do it. It will also go over exactly how you can bypass it. Let’s dive right in.

How to tell if my internet speed is being throttled by my ISP

What Is Data Throttling

Traffic throttling is the practice by ISPs to intentionally limit the speed or volume of data transfers between their users and some or all parts of the internet.

If you’ve heard of the internet referred to as the information superhighway, consider this metaphor to understand bandwidth throttling:

Imagine taking a drive to your local supermarket. One the way, you run into a road crew. They have closed two out of an available three lanes of traffic along your route. Worse still, they only allow a certain number of cars at a time into the remaining open lane.

The road crew’s actions won’t completely prevent traffic from flowing along your route. But, they are actively controlling which cars enter when, and how fast they may travel.

That, in a nutshell, is traffic throttling.

The only difference is that when your ISP does it, there won’t be anyone in a reflective vest waving a flag to let you know what is happening.

Why ISPs Throttle Traffic

At first glance, an ISP intentionally interfering with their own customers’ traffic might seem a bit counterintuitive. After all, slow connection speeds are one of the most common reasons we call our ISP and complain (and sometimes even leave for greener pastures).

Wouldn’t it then follow that an ISP would avoid doing anything to give us a poor experience? The answer, strangely, is no.

Legitimate Reasons for Internet Throttling

There are several reasons why an ISP would risk angering its customers by throttling certain types of traffic. Many of them are, in fact, legitimate. They help assure reliable service for all of the ISP’s users and are as follows:

  • Management of network congestion during peak demand times
  • Enforcement of explicitly-stated data transfer limits
  • Traffic prioritization and optimization
  • Prevention of DDoS attacks

These are all good examples and, in my mind, acceptable reasons why an ISP might engage in traffic throttling.

Any computer network has a limit to its overall capacity. There must be some controls to make sure that no user or group of users overwhelm it. Now having such restrictions in place could quickly make the network unusable for others.

Unfortunately, there are also other, less legitimate reasons that an ISP might opt to throttle certain traffic.

Sketchy Reasons for Internet Throttling

Comcast’s throttling of (or outright interference with) traffic using the BitTorrent protocol in 2007 is an excellent example of an ISP using gray and controversial reasons for limiting bandwidth.

Comcast claimed users of the popular file-sharing system were taking up an excessive amount of bandwidth on their network. They stated that their action was intended to protect other customers.

However, the FCC investigated and did not agree. They came to the conclusion Comcast was trying to force users to stop downloading movies and other materials through BitTorrent to increase usage of their own paid streaming services (which they marketed as an alternative).

That, of course, wasn’t the only time an ISP was called out for intentionally degrading their service for less-than-legitimate reasons. A quick Google search can reveal just to what degree internet service providers try to stack the deck in their favor. In pretty much every case, things boil down to pure greed.

Is Bandwidth Throttling Legal

After hearing some of the reasons why ISPs have sought to throttle traffic on their networks, it’s natural to wonder if the practice is, in fact, legal.

Since the repeal of the FCC’s 2015 net neutrality rules, that’s a difficult question to answer, at least in the United States. In the European Union, throttling for any reason other than legitimate network management is illegal under the region’s net neutrality regulations, passed in 2014.

In the U.S., the only real legal framework we had to prevent ISPs from engaging in whatever type of throttling they choose expired with the net neutrality rules on June 11th, 2018. There no longer exist any legal restrictions the ISPs have to contend with regarding traffic throttling.

It’s impossible to know how major U.S. internet providers will proceed from this point forward. But, based on their public statements, things don’t look encouraging.

Among major U.S. internet service providers, only AT&T and Cox have indicated that they don’t intend to do much beyond what is necessary to manage their respective networks. All others have issued a mixture of noncommittal statements on throttling which leave plenty of room for changes in the future.

Even the statements issued by AT&T and Cox don’t say if they will engage in paid prioritization of traffic, a practice which would likely force internet companies to pay for faster access for their end users (which would then surely be passed on to us).

Paid traffic prioritization would create a pay-for-play system. It would be up to individual internet businesses (the Netflixes and Hulus of the world) to opt-out of throttling by ISPs. You, other end users and I would, of course, have no say in the matter.

With the FCC rules no longer around, any of these throttling practices are now fair game.

How to Tell If Your Internet Is Being Throttled

As explained earlier, unlike highway traffic congestion caused by roadwork, traffic throttling by ISPs will not necessarily come with a warning to us end users.

In the past, some ISPs have engaged in data throttling for months or years before anyone could prove that they were doing it. The reason that internet throttling is so hard to detect is that it can take many forms, throwing for a loop anyone looking for an identifiable pattern.

When an ISP throttles traffic, it may:

  • Only happen during times of high demand
  • Only target specific types of traffic
  • Happen on an intermittent (sometimes completely random) basis
  • Affect only parts of an ISP’s subscriber base

While these factors make it challenging to detect traffic throttling, it is possible. But, before we get to that, there is one distinction that’s important to note.

If an ISP is applying throttling to all internet traffic, not just a subset of it, that is not something unusual or a cause for concern (albeit still annoying). When they target specific types of traffic though, that’s when it’s on. That’s when it’s time to get cracking on a workaround to avoid the slowdown.

Detecting Internet Throttling

The first step in detecting traffic throttling is to establish a baseline speed for your internet connection.

Run a test at Speedtest.net to find out how fast your internet is. Once you have noted the typical performance of your connection, you have something to compare against speeds you’re experiencing with a site or service you suspect is being throttled.

Internet connection speed test baseline to compare against

Unfortunately, there is no all-in-one test available that will cover every site or service online. But, there are tests which check common throttling targets. One caveat is that some ISPs may try to be sneaky and disable throttling as soon as they detect your tests. In that case, your mileage on these may vary.

Testing for Netflix Throttling

If you’re seeing quality drops while watching media on Netflix, head on over to Fast.com and check your connection speeds to the Netflix video servers.

If the speed reading you get differs significantly from your baseline speed, traffic throttling could be to blame. It’s also important to check at various times of day to see if your findings are consistent.

Screenshot of a Netflix server speed test

Checking YouTube Throttling

If you’re having difficulties with YouTube, Google has created a handy video streaming quality report tool. It will tell you how their service is performing on your specific ISP’s network.

The tool displays results for a 24-hour period so you will even be able to tell when peak traffic times are for users of your ISP.

Sometimes, avoiding those times alone will solve your problems. If you’re already streaming during off-peak hours but can’t get a stable or quick connection, your ISP may be throttling your service.

Screenshot of YouTube video streaming quality tool

Is BitTorrent Being Throttled

By far, the most often throttled type of traffic is file sharing on BitTorrent. It is also the hardest type of throttling to detect.

The best way to check for BitTorrent throttling is to download a file with plenty of well-established seeders. That should guarantee your download is immune to slowness due to low availability.

An excellent choice here is to grab an installer for the popular Linux distribution Ubuntu. It’s a very safe download that should be available at very high speeds at all times of day and night. If you are unable to download the file at a reasonable rate, once again, your ISP could be throttling your BitTorrent traffic.

The Catch-All Test Throttling Test

If any of the above tests are inconclusive, run this internet health test. It will show you your connection speed via five major backbone networks. They should all yield a similar result.

Screeshot of testing your inernet against backbone networks to detect any throttling

If you notice one or more network performing worse than the others, it might be a sign of congestion. That should be a temporary condition.

But, if you notice a persistent problem connecting to any of the tested networks, it’s time to lodge a formal complaint with your ISP.

How To Bypass Data Throttling

Once you have determined that your ISP is throttling your connection, and sometimes even if your testing was inconclusive, you will need to find a workaround. Fortunately, the ways that an ISP implements traffic throttling can also work to the advantage of those looking to avoid it.

For example, in some situations, you can defeat BitTorrent traffic throttling by enabling encryption in the client software. That encryption can mask the traffic to prevent the throttling mechanism from activating.

Unfortunately, most ISPs now use pretty sophisticated detection systems. They’ve adopted a multi-faceted analysis of traffic flows to classify data for their throttling policies. To figure out what kind of traffic traverses their network, ISPs will take into account things like the number of concurrent connections, the total data transfer rate, the connection destination, and the ports in use.

Encryption alone will not mask any of these traits. But, there are still ways to avoid ISP throttling mechanisms.

Use a Proxy

The first step you can take to avoid throttling is to make use of a proxy server. It will act as a middleman for your data transfers.

Proxies offer a means of routing some or all of your computer’s connections through a third-party server. Doing so hides the actual destination of the traffic, as well as the port numbers involved. Instead, all connections appear to use a single port and to end up in the same place.

There are countless commercially available proxy providers. Personally, I tend to not use then that often for reasons I will get into shortly (i.e. there are better solutions). But, when in a pinch, I gravitate towards CyberGhost’s free anonymous proxy.

Use a VPN

Depending on how your ISP inspects traffic on their network, a proxy server might not avoid every kind of detection method. If that’s the case, a virtual private network (VPN) will be your preferred solution.

The most significant difference between a proxy and a VPN is the latter creates an encrypted tunnel from your device to the VPN server. All your internet traffic then flows through that tunnel.

The double whammy of an encrypted connection and the VPN server acting as a middleman means an ISP will not be able to determine anything significant about your traffic. The only things they can figure out are data totals and the destination VPN server.

Using a VPN can be a workaround for throttling

Hence, with a VPN, an ISP should never be able to throttle your traffic. Unless, of course, they limit everything coming from your IP address. And if that ever happens (except for legitimate network management purposes), finding a better internet provider might be in order.

If this is the route you’re considering, reading through my handy guide on picking a VPN should help you find a service that will meet all your needs. You can also check this site’s homepage for what are, in my humble opinion, the top VPN providers available to us today.

The Bottom Line

With any luck, you won’t ever encounter a situation where you have to deal with traffic throttling. There are no concrete statistics that show how widespread the practice is. It unquestionably takes place, but most evidence suggests that it’s not a standard operating procedure for most ISPs – yet.

The death of net neutrality in the U.S. could (and likely will) change that sooner rather than later.

The good news is if you ever find yourself affected by traffic throttling, you have options (with VPNs currently being the best choice). And there’s an excellent chance that as ISPs deploy ever-more sophisticated traffic monitoring tools, a countermeasure will always exist.

As I stated at the beginning, the best defense is a well-informed public. If you’ve made it this far, you are now a part of the enlightened few.

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