Slow Internet doesn’t always have to do with the websites you visit, faulty hardware or software configurations, or your geographical location, but with bandwidth throttling instead. It can be noticed when torrent downloads are taking longer than usual or when YouTube clips keep buffering.
According to a worldwide survey conducted by SpeedTest, the fastest average Internet speed in 2018 (for fixed broadband connections) was recorded by Singapore (184Mbps), followed by Iceland (153.17Mbps) and Hong Kong (136.43Mpbs). Even for people who rely on the best Internet speed in the world, the slightest change brought to their bandwidth can have a negative impact on personal, educational and financial lives. A sudden drop in network speed can prevent you from enjoying a well-earned Netflix show after a hard day’s work, obtaining large files with the documentation necessary to create a big project for school, or researching news in developing countries for the office.
What is bandwidth throttling
Bandwidth throttling means that your ISP is slowing down your Internet connections on purpose by setting a limit to the amount of data packets that can be downloaded, uploaded, or both. The type of web activities can be irrelevant, or the Internet Service Provider may specify conditions: when you’re trying to download torrents, watch Netflix shows, play online games, or something else.
This happens on college campuses, for instance, where there’s usually just one ISP, so there’s no competition among broadband providers. When students cannot get better subscriptions by switching providers, the ISP might take advantage out of this situation and impose bandwidth restrictions to cut costs as much as possible.
Throttling versus capping
There’s a distinct line between bandwidth throttling and bandwidth capping, so the two terms shouldn’t be used to define the same thing. Throttling refers to a variation in speed, the download or upload rate that should otherwise remain constant.
Bandwidth capping, on the other hand, refers to the total amount of allowed data transfers (only uploads, only downloads, or both). Most ISPs no longer practice bandwidth capping, but you might come across this when trying VPN tools with limited monthly data plans.
Why ISPs set bandwidth restrictions
Most broadband providers say that, without restricting the bandwidth, they have a more difficult time managing traffic coming from all devices connected to the same network. It might be true for smaller-scaled ISPs but certainly not the case of bigger companies, which are equipped with all the tools necessary for handling extra traffic.
Some ISPs intentionally reduce the connection speed to manage network congestion, data request failures and server crashes. It can also happen to draw your attention toward unpaid bills, which is preferred to cutting of your Internet source.
Because they are required by law to filter content
Depending on which country the ISP is based in, it might be required by law to ban access to websites with offensive, inappropriate, illegal or overall sensitive content. Examples include pages with sexually explicit content, terrorist acts, real or simulated violence, and child abuse. This means that if you use a VPN tool or any other method to reach websites prohibited by the government, you are breaking the law.
With the growing popularity of streaming services like Netflix, ISPs restrict Internet bandwidth and offer to drop this restriction for a price. This is particularly true if the broadband provider has its own streaming content library and business is suffering due to competition. For instance, the Comcast and Cox US providers admitted to limiting the speed of their Internet consumers by a staggering 99%.
Because they resort to unjustified and unethical means for personal gain
If you notice that the Internet speed doesn’t even reach the estimated speed written in the contract negotiated with your ISP, then it’s possible that your broadband provider is trying to fool you into paying for a more expensive subscription plan that supposedly offers greater speed.
Many of them have no ethical issues with hiding under the “we cannot 100% guarantee this Internet speed” policy, even if the speed tests carried out by their specialists were excellent before the contract was drawn. Besides, bandwidth throttling can also be used to speed up Internet connections. This means there’s nothing stopping ISPs from luring you into subscription plans by making false claims with Internet speed that’s too good to be true.
Is it legal for ISPs to throttle bandwidth?
In most cases, yes.
If you’re paying for an unlimited data plan and not breaking any laws, then it’s illegal for ISPs to intentionally interfere with your network bandwidth. Based on the net neutrality principle that supports the elimination of Internet traffic discrimination, the US Federal Communication Commission assumed the rules of Open Internet in 2015.
These rules clearly prevented broadband providers from blocking Internet access to websites, throttling the bandwidth or choosing favorites for better Internet traffic in exchange for money, even when it came to their own affiliated businesses. Net neutrality was applicable only for websites, services and applications with legal content, as well as devices that are not designed to bring damage to others.
Unfortunately, net neutrality was annihilated in December 2017, when the FCC repealed the Open Internet rules and restored the Internet access status to a simple “information service”. As a direct consequence, ISPs were given back the power to regulate network traffic in any way they see fit, which typically translates to favoring their own services at the cost of other content belonging to partners. Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped US federal judges from ruling against AT&T, which was caught restricting the bandwidth millions of customers.
Rule out all other options before calling throttling
Before jumping to the throttling conclusion, make sure to eliminate all other possibilities. Contact your ISP to express your concerns and even ask if they practice bandwidth throttling. Try sounding worried and understanding, not accusatory.
It might be a temporary hardware problem on behalf of the ISP (like fixing network issues after a storm in your neighborhood), a problem that can be quickly resolved by resetting your connection from the provider’s headquarters. Otherwise, slow Internet can be a sign of software or hardware error.
Get started by running baseline tests
To get started, run multiple speed tests on various websites like Fast, SpeedTest and Xfinity Speed Test to establish the baseline. Before doing so, terminate any currently running processes with Internet connection, such as web browsers, Netflix (on mobile), torrent or email clients.
Run a test on each website when you’re not only hooked to the wireless network but also connected via Ethernet cable. Take screenshots, give suggestive file names, and create a folder to easily keep track of statistics. After attempting to fix issues using any of the following methods, take the same tests again under the same conditions to compare results.
Too many devices connect, inside or outside your home
To get more accurate results, run the tests at various times of the day, like in the morning, afternoon and evening, during work days and on weekends. If you notice a pattern, your slow Internet might be caused by the fact that too many people in your neighborhood with the same ISP connect to the same access points at the same time as you.
The problem can be inside your home, too, if you have a large family or frequently have people over, each having an active Internet connection to your router. This can be seamlessly tested by making each person connect to a bandwidth-demanding Internet activity, like watching Netflix or YouTube. If the connection speed suddenly drops in tests, you have found your problem, which means you need a better subscription plan from your ISP that offers more bandwidth.
Run tests from multiple devices, like desktop computer, notebook, smartphone and tablet. If Internet is slow only on one, then you can narrow down the list of suspects and focus on fixing the problem with just that device.
Run a device scan to rule out malware infections
When you shift your attention toward repairing the slow Internet problem on a single computer, first run a PC scan using your antivirus application to make sure it’s not a malware agent causing all the damage. For instance, you could have been infected by a worm that’s trying to spread itself across your local network to infect nearby devices, which means that it’s continuously using the bandwidth.
Don’t install multiple antivirus programs – each one has its own real-time guard (to identify and stop malware attacks before they happen) and installing two real-time guards can lead to software conflicts, including network-related. Instead, stick to a single, reliable application capable of detecting multiple kinds of malware.
Change your DNS servers
Another software solution you can try is switching to other DNS servers. The role of DNS is to provide you with the real IP address associated with the hostname you ask, then connect you to the website associated with that IP address. Your ISP should be in charge of providing your DNS servers but they might be crowded by too many DNS requests made by too many simultaneous device connections.
Reboot the router and reset its options
It’s normal for the Ethernet tests to have better results when comparing speed with the router. But if the difference between Ethernet and wifi is too big, which means that you’re happy with the Ethernet speed but disappointed by the wifi speed, it’s likely that the Internet speed issue is related to your router. Perhaps it’s the type of error that can be fixed by simply rebooting the router.
For instance, if you have a dynamic IP address, maybe your current server is causing the speed errors and needs to be fixed by switching to a new server, which can be done by resetting the device. If the router is plugged into a modem and if the modem is actually the device with a direct Internet connection, you might have to reset both.
If the slow Internet problem is not fixed after reboot, make a visit to the router configuration page to check settings because an improper configuration can lead to all sorts of issues, including slow Internet. Revisit the contract negotiated with your ISP and make sure the settings are the same.
Minimize interference with other routers
It’s also possible that the problem has to do with a bad wi-fi signal, especially if it affects all your devices, since a wireless connection issue can easily disguise itself as a slow Internet error. If there are too many devices connected to the same router, the device might not have compatibility for so many simultaneous connections. The airwaves might also be thrown off track if there are too many routers and too many devices in the same neighborhood.
To resolve the wifi signal interference, find another place for the router in your home with better reception. Of course, you cannot possibly know how many other routers are in your neighborhood and where they are positioned, so it might be necessary to explore multiple spots around your home until you find the right one. Don’t forget to couple this with changing your wifi channel number to reduce radio frequency interference.
Upgrade your router
If this doesn’t work either, you might have to upgrade your router because your current one isn’t powerful enough for high-speed Internet. It typically applies with routers borrowed from ISPs since they might not invest much in hardware available for renting for home use. Gigabit routers are expensive but permit an extended bandwidth. Consider this option if you can afford it and only after consulting your ISP to see if your subscription plan supports it.
Replace your coaxial splitters
Coax cable splitters are small devices that can be plugged into your Internet cable to create multiple outputs from an single input line. Having too many output lines can affect the quality of the Internet signal, even when other ports remain unused.
If you have such devices, unplug them first and see how the Internet speed behaves without them. If there are significant differences between the baselines and new speed tests, you found your problem. To fix it, buy splitters of higher quality, try to reduce their number as best as you can, and add terminator caps to all unused ports.
Prevent bandwidth throttling with VPN
A virtual private network tool works by securing communications passing through your IP address, encrypting all sent and received data packets to make sure nobody can tell what you are using the Internet for. It essentially hides your IP address from your ISP, along with any details about what websites you are accessing, what you are downloading, or what you are watching online.
How to connect to a VPN service
After picking a good VPN service and opting for a premium subscription plan, follow these steps:
- Download your VPN client. You should be able to find the download links on the developer’s website, in an email received from the VPN maker after subscription, or both.
- Install the VPN service on all supported devices. Depending on what operating systems and platforms are supported by the VPN application, make sure to install it not only on your primary device but also others: Windows, macOS, Linux, Android, iOS, and so on.
- Activate the paid version. There are many business models out there, so it depends on the approach taken by your VPN provider. If there was no other way to try the VPN besides paying for it first, then the registered version should already be activated. Otherwise, you will have to enter the serial key during installation, afterward, log in with a username and password each time you want to access the VPN app, or something else. Make sure to follow the instructions sent by the developer.
- Connect to a VPN server to become anonymous. Once you reach the main app window, search for the list of available VPN servers. They might be displayed in the main window in a list, hidden inside a menu, or represented by countries in a world map. Select a new server, click the connecting button, then wait a few seconds until the job is done.
Can your ISP throttle your VPN traffic?
If the broadband provider is usually restricting network bandwidth based on the activity type, then it’s not likely it will throttle your VPN traffic. When you’re visiting websites while being routed through your VPN service, it will look like you’re using HTTPS connections. HTTPS encrypts data packets and makes sure they cannot be seen by others, but it isn’t an automatic sign of VPN usage. For all the ISP knows, you’re simply being more careful about the types of websites you visit, accessing only HTTPS and avoid HTTP.
On the other hand, if the ISP was throttling your bandwidth based on the entire amount of transferred data (which is basically a lesser form of bandwidth capping), then it will continue doing this even when you’re using VPN. Although the type of data cannot be observed by the ISP, the size of it still remains visible.
Further, some ISPs can turn to heuristic methods to analyze and determine the type of data. For example, if you leave the computer turned on to download or upload torrents continuously throughout the day, it’s not difficult to figure this out by looking at the duration of connection sessions, number of connection requests, what size they have and if they are repetitive, and other technical details.
If you’re experiencing bandwidth throttling, make sure to rule out any other causes before accusing your Internet Service Provider. We’d also love to hear your own tricks and tips for bypassing throttling, so please don’t hesitate to drop us a line in the comment section below.