Table of Contents
- 1 What Is Data Throttling
- 2 Why ISPs Throttle Traffic
- 3 Is Bandwidth Throttling Legal
- 4 How To Bypass Data Throttling
- 5 Best VPNs to Stop ISP Throttling
- 6 How to Tell If Your Internet Is Being Throttled
- 7 ISP Throttle Tests
- 8 The Bottom Line
- 9 Throttling Workaround VPN Comparison
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Unfortunately for us internet users, those rules have recently been repealed.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 internet providers 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.
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 internet provider intentionally interfering with their own customers' traffic might seem a bit counter-intuitive. After all, slow connection speeds are one of the most common reasons we call them 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 internet provider 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 the provider of your internet 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 torrenting 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 internet providers 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 Bypass Data Throttling
When you figure out your ISP is throttling your connection, or even if you just suspect they're doing it, it's time to find a workaround.
In some situations, you can defeat things like BitTorrent traffic throttling by enabling encryption in a client like uTorrent. That encryption can mask the traffic enough to prevent the throttling mechanism from activating.
Unfortunately, these days most internet providers are not so easily fooled (though a few remain). They use progressively sophisticated detection systems and adopt a multi-faceted analysis of traffic flows to classify data for their throttling policies.
To figure out what traverses their network, ISPs will take into account things like the number of concurrent connections, the total data transfer rate, and the ports in use. Checking traffic headers (the equivalent of a mailing address on an envelope) to see where data is going and coming from is also common practice.
Some ISPs may employ a type of data processing called deep packet inspection (DPI). DPI takes things a step further and reads the contents of the data your device sends and receives (instead of just checking headers). Based on that information, your provider can figure out if you're downloading a movie via BitTorrent or an image from Facebook and act accordingly.
As scary and impossible to beat as this all may sound, don't lose hope. Whether you're using Windows, Android or anything in between, there are a few good and surprisingly easy 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.
Proxies are a way of routing some or all of your computer's connections through a third-party server. It acts as a middleman for your data transfers. 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.
The downside of proxies is that they don't encrypt any data you send or receive. If your ISP is using deep packet encryption as part of their throttling system, they will still be able to read, classify, and act on anything you download or upload.
Personally, I don't use proxies for this reason. There is a better solution to the problem. But, if you would like to give them a try, there are countless commercially available providers. CyberGhost's free anonymous proxy, for example, is a good choice.
Use a VPN
Depending on how your ISP inspects traffic on their network, a proxy server might not avoid every kind of detection method. Deep packet inspection, for example, is something proxies can't defeat. A virtual private network (VPN), on the other hand, is a completely different story.
Though both solutions act as a middleman for your data transfers, there is a significant difference between a proxy and a VPN. The latter creates an encrypted tunnel between your device and the server that all your internet traffic flow through. Encryption is the key word here.
This double whammy of an encrypted connection and the VPN server acting as a middleman means an ISP will not be able to figure out anything significant about your traffic. The only things they can see are data totals and the destination VPN server.
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.
So will any VPN work to prevent throttling? Just about. Though there are a few things to pay special attention to.
What to Look for in a VPN
As you can see in my handy guide on picking a VPN, there are many features you may want to think about when looking for a provider. But, if your goal is to stop a throttle-happy ISP in its tracks, here are the VPN features on which I would focus.
The Right VPN Protocols
A VPN can use many protocols. But not all are created equal. Many protocols are outdated and have potential security holes. Ideally, you want a provider that offers either OpenVPN or L2TP/IPsec (or both).
Not only are these two protocols bulletproof security-wise, but they also offer some of the strongest encryption around. The odds of anyone breaking any VPN encryption are slim. But, when you use the most robust options available, you know for sure your ISP can't inspect your data and therefore cannot throttle your connection.
The last thing I would want is to successfully prevent an ISP from throttling my internet only to have the VPN company I used tell it what I have been up to. VPN providers that log will often sell that data to third-parties. Avoid them.
By going with a virtual private network that has a strict zero logging policy, there is no round-about way for your internet service provider to figure out what you do online and throttle you as a result.
Good VPN Server Selection
This feature has less to do with an internet service provider being able to inspect and throttle your data and more with a VPN being usable.
Some VPNs offer very few servers. This means those servers are usually far away from your location and overloaded by other users. Those are two major factors which can slow down your connection to a crawl. Kind of counterproductive when a slow internet is what you're trying to avoid in the first place.
Good VPN Server Performance
Going hand in hand with the previous point, unless you end up with a fast VPN provider (and not all are), you're running in circles. You'll successfully sidestep your ISP's attempts to slow down your connection only to be defeated by the VPN's weak performance.
P2P and Torrenting Support
For reasons that are their own, not all VPN providers allow P2P traffic on their networks. If your connection is throttled because of torrenting, getting a VPN which does not permit such traffic doesn't solve anything.
A Kill Switch
No matter how good a VPN is, disconnects happen. From your device to the VPN server and every piece of hardware in between, there are just too many variables for all smooth sailing all the time.
When a VPN does drop, your data reverts to being completely visible to your ISP. That means you once again become a prime target for throttling.
A VPN kill-switch will prevent that from happening. It will detect your device is no longer talking to the VPN server and automatically re-connect it.
Best VPNs to Stop ISP Throttling
There are plenty of VPN providers who offer every feature I laid out above. I've always been a firm believer in having to inspect what you expect. Hence I do encourage you to do a bit of your own digging around for a service you like.
That said, if you'd like a smaller list to start with or are just not interested in poking around at all (and fair enough, plenty of us are not), here are three VPNs that will do a great job of preventing internet speed throttling.
- True zero logging for maximum privacy
- Excellent server distribution with over 5500 servers in 90 countries
- Fast connection speeds
- Works with US Netflix and BBC iPlayer
- Allows P2P torrenting
- Long 45-day money back guarantee
- Expensive if you pay monthly (very affordable if you don't)
- Performance could be better in a few countries
- macOS client missing some features
With an airtight no-logging policy and using the strongest possible encryption standards, CyberGhost will stop every ISP dead in its tracks. Say goodbye to having your data analyzed, and internet connection throttled.
All P2P protocols are allowed by CyberGhost, and an always-on internet kill switch is built right into the client software. This is one VPN provider you pretty much can't go wrong with.
- Anonymous provider with zero logging
- Over 5500 servers in 60 countries (and growing)
- Great server performance across the board
- Purpose optimized servers, including streaming and P2P
- Clean, easy to use client
- A generous six simultaneous connections
- Can't pick specific cities to connect to
- A few nice-to-haves missing from the macOS client
NordVPN has a massive network of fast servers (5567 as I write this - you can see the entire list here) spread across 60 countries. A disproportional number of those servers are in the US and the UK, which is excellent news for anyone living there. The vast majority of servers also allow P2P traffic (they're marked accordingly).
As you would expect from any top VPN provider, Nord's client includes a multifunctional kill switch and a large number of protocols and encryption standards (including, of course, those bulletproof options I mentioned earlier).
A great all-around provider, NordVPN is one of only two services I always keep an active subscription with.
- Privacy doesn’t get much better
- Great performance
- Unlimited connections
- Purpose optimized servers, including for video streaming, peer-to-peer and Tor
- Works with Netflix and BBC
- P2P and Torrenting support
- Not clear which servers support P2P
- Some features missing on mobile
They have not been around as long as most VPN providers. But, as I mentioned in my review, Surfshark is a service that does things very, very well. This includes making sure you have everything you need to prevent your ISP from throttling your connection.
Operating out of the privacy-friendly British Virgin Islands, Surfshark is another strict no logging provider. They offer all the right VPN protocols as well as military-grade encryption standards.
With over 800 servers in 56 countries, Surfshark has excellent global coverage. You'll be able to connect from wherever you are to anywhere you want.
Last but not least, wrapped up in one of the cleanest and easiest to use apps I've seen is kill switch functionality. Surfshark definitely does not disappoint (especially considering how little the service costs).
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 internet provider 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 the provider'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.
ISP Throttle Tests
The first step in detecting traffic throttling is to establish a baseline speed for your internet connection. You should do this, of course, before implementing any bypass methods.
Run a test at Speedtest.net to find out how fast your internet is under normal circumstances. On Windows and Mac, you can do so right from your browser of choice. On Android and iPhone devices, you will need to download an app.
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.
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.
How to Stop Throttling With Netflix
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, ISP throttling could be to blame. It's also important to check at various times of day to see if your findings are consistent.
If you suspect your internet is throttled when watching Netflix, the workaround is simple.
- Install a Netflix friendly VPN on your device (any of the ones I mention in this section will work great).
- Connect to a lightly loaded VPN server physically close to your location.
- Enjoy an unthrottled Netflix experience.
After connecting to the VPN, you can re-run the Fast.com test to confirm your throttling suspicions. If the speed increases, you were right. And you have now also successfully gotten around your ISPs slowdown attempts.
Stop Throttling on YouTube
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 internet provider.
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 internet service provider may be throttling your service.
Beyond what I mentioned before, there is nothing special you need to do to bypass YouTube ISP throttling. Simply get a VPN, connect to it, and start enjoying the speeds and quality you're paying for.
That said, to make sure you get the best experience, pay attention to which VPN server you connect to. Pick one that's under light load and close to where you are. Doing so will reduce to a minimum the overhead and performance hit of using a VPN.
How to Bypass ISP Throttling While Torrenting
Torrenting is by far the most often throttled type of traffic. It is also the hardest type of throttling to detect.
The best way to check for BitTorrent throttling is to use uTorrent (or any other client) 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 torrents.
Getting around BitTorrent throttling (or any P2P for that matter) is just as easy as in all the other cases mentioned above. Once again, VPNs come to our rescue. The steps are as follows.
- Download and install a VPN client.
- Pause all active torrents (if any are running).
- Connect to a VPN server that is not under heavy load.
- Go back to uTorrent and resume your downloads.
A few things to note. Be sure you use a system-wide VPN, not just a browser extension. Because uTorrent is a separate application, the latter will do nothing for you.
You also don't need to concern yourself with your physical distance to the VPN server. Torrenting is decentralized, and you'll be downloading from seeders all over the world. Just focus on picking a server that's not under heavy load and one that's in a P2P friendly country. I usually go with the Netherlands.
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.
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.
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.
Throttling Workaround VPN Comparison