You’re in the 10th straight hour of a weekend House of Cards binge on Netflix, enjoying all of the 4K HDR goodness that is Frank Underwood on your new UHD Smart TV.
Suddenly, you notice the video isn’t quite as sharp as it had been. Is that pixelization? And why does Netflix indicate you’re watching their 1080p stream?
You pay for a 60 Mbps connection – and yet, you see speed numbers like this:
Later, you’re torrenting the latest episodes of your favorite comedy show – nothing illegal, of course. About halfway through your 3GB download, your formerly 56 Mbps download speed drops to 11 Mbps. What gives?
Welcome to the wonderful world of ISP throttling.
What is Throttling?
Throttling is best defined as when your Internet Service Provider (ISP) intentionally slows the speed of your broadband internet connection.
Such throttling is usually a reactive measure used by ISPs and other types of communication networks to regulate a network’s traffic and alleviate network congestion.
Any network is made up of servers and clients. Servers are specially set up computers that store massive amounts of data, which are accessed by clients. Clients are computers and other devices on the network that request data from the servers.
On the internet, the servers are best defined as the machines that serve up the websites and other online content – such as video and audio – that you access from your computer or mobile devices, which are the “client” part of the equation.
Every network – even one as large as the internet – only has a limited amount of bandwidth available. The more traffic on the network, the slower things run. (Think the 5 freeway in Los Angeles at rush hour.)
Internet Service Providers run a Wide Area Network (WAN) in their service areas. Their network is connected to the WAN that is better known as the internet. An ISP’s customers connect their computers and other devices to the ISP’s WAN, which allows them to send and receive data on the internet.
During peak traffic hours, ISPs may throttle their users’ bandwidth to ease their network’s congestion.
This is generally seen as beneficial to all users. While users may experience a slower connection, they can at least connect to the websites and services they need to, instead of being completely unable to connect.
Bandwidth-throttling could be considered the same thing as when an electrical utility resorts to rolling brownouts during peak electrical demand times – such as when it’s early August and everyone has their air conditioner on at the same time. Rolling brownouts are designed to alleviate demands, so the whole power grid doesn’t go down.
While bandwidth-throttling is not exactly like rolling brownouts, Internet Service Providers do say throttling helps ensure everyone gets access to the internet they pay for. While not as important as keeping your grandpa’s iron lung running, fast internet is considered by many to be a “right” these days.
This is the good side of throttling, which is beneficial to all concerned. However, there is a darker side to ISP throttling, and that’s what we’ll discuss in this article.
Why Do ISPs Throttle Your Connection?
Any Internet Service Provider can throttle your single connection to the internet due to any one of a number of reasons. (COUGH! Excuses. COUGH!)
Throttling can take place when your ISP believes you have used too much data in any given time span, have reached your data cap for the month, or as we previously discussed, simply when the network is congested.
However, ISP’s have also been known to throttle certain kinds of traffic on their network particularly. This can include streaming traffic, such as Netflix and Hulu, torrenting traffic, or if a user is backing up massive amounts of data to their cloud storage account.
By throttling certain kinds of data, ISPs can encourage the type of behavior they’d prefer to see from their customers.
While FCC rules have outlawed bandwidth-throttling by ISPs for any reason other than slowing service when a user reaches their monthly data cap, it looks as if things will be changing.
In April, the Trump administration’s new FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, said throttling of websites and online services might actually help customers. His comments indicate that if Pai has his way, the FCC will be repealing many of the Net Neutrality rules the agency enacted a few years back. Many of those rules prevent ISPs from throttling a user’s data stream.
Pai reportedly believes there might not be any need for any rules at all concerning Net Neutrality and the accompanying subjects of bandwidth-throttling and preferred treatment for content providers willing to pay for an “express lane” for their content.
Under current Net Neutrality rules, ISPs cannot limit customer’s access and downloading of content (let’s say music or movies, just for fun) unless the content and the act of obtaining it was proven to be illegal.
“Illegal” can cover a number of things, but mostly it includes copyrighted materials, as well as truly evil content like child pornography and anything that was shown on the WB network while it was still around.
Which ISPs Throttle?
ISPs have long disliked P2P/BitTorrent-type traffic on their networks. At one time or another, every ISP has waged war on this kind of traffic.
In 2007, it was reported that Comcast used an application from Sandvine to throttle BitTorrent traffic. Sandvine’s app would break every seeding connection with a user’s new peers after only a few seconds if it was not a Comcast user.
A 2008 report claimed Cox Communications made a habit of interfering with BitTorrent traffic on a regular basis. The Max Planck Institute for Software Systems released a study that showed Cox did so around the clock and not only at times of “peak congestion,” as the provider had claimed.
I believe it is safe to say that no matter what ISP you use, it has throttled a customer at one time or another.
While throttling has, in recent years, been basically outlawed in the United States, it still takes place in many countries – especially in underdeveloped nations where broadband still has yet to make heavy inroads.
With a change of regimes in the U.S., it looks as if bandwidth-throttling could be making a big, unwelcome comeback in the near future. I can imagine that ISPs are currently brushing off their old techniques while tuning up some new ones they’ve developed, in eager anticipation of once again being able to data-throttle with abandon.
Internet provider Charter, who recently merged with Time Warner Cable, is currently in a New York state court facing allegations that its Spectrum-TWC internet service promised customers speeds that it knew it couldn’t deliver.
Additional allegations claim the provider also hasn’t provided reliable access to Netflix, as well as other online streaming content and games.
While most reports of outlandish throttling by U.S. carriers peaked around 2008 or so, when the FCC first started taking a closer look at how internet providers used bandwidth-throttling, it’s likely to once again become a favorite tool to control user’s bandwidth-hungry habits if the FCC chairman’s proposals become rules.
U.S. ISPs are not the only providers to throttle. A number of reports out of the United Kingdom indicate U.K. providers are just as apt to throttle their customer’s bandwidth as stateside providers once were.
Bandwidth-throttling numbers for recent years are absolutely anorexic, with most reports showing data from around 2012 or so. Try as I might, I couldn’t find any more recent data.
However, in 2012, a report from Google-backed Measurement Lab showed that the United Kingdom ranked 12th among countries where ISPs throttled P2P data streams. 28% of all U.K. BitTorrent traffic was throttled. The United States showed a much lower throttling percentage, coming in at 14%.
Is Throttling Legal?
While bandwidth-throttling has been frowned upon by the FCC the last few years, when it comes to actually cracking down on ISPs that throttle, it’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.
In September of 2011, the FCC released its final rules for “Preserving a Free and Open Internet.” The rules stated that providers must not block lawful content or unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful network traffic.
However, in January 2014, a Washington D.C. Circuit Court ruled the FCC has no authority to enforce Network Neutrality rules, as service providers are not “common carriers.” Since that ruling, AT&T has submitted several patents that allow throttling of data streams.
In February 2014, the FCC announced plans to formulate new rules to enforce Net Neutrality while complying with the court’s rulings. The new scheme would still prevent providers from throttling data of particular types of streams, but it also allowed ISPs to make deals with content providers, such as Netflix, that would offer a “fast lane” to prioritize their content.
As bandwidth on any network is finite, it stands to reason that prioritized traffic would have to be given preference over other types of data.
This means that while ISPs would no longer throttle particular types of data, it would give preference to other kinds, which comes close to the same thing as throttling.
The FCC in February 2015 ruled in favor of Net Neutrality by reclassifying broadband access as a telecommunications service, making it a common carrier.
So, the short answer to the question of whether throttling is legal? It depends on who you talk to and when you talk to them.
How to Tell if Your ISP Is Throttling You
As I mentioned from the get-go, you may get the feeling occasionally that your ISP is throttling your data connection.
After a long Netflix binging session, you may notice the quality of your video has gone down, or that it’s buffering more before playing. Or, your torrents may slow way down, or might sometimes completely stop working.
While these are more anecdotal indicators than official indicators, there are more concrete ways to tell if your ISP is throttling you. While none of the tests would likely stand up in court, they’ll at least reassure you that you’re not just paranoid. (Well, at least about the throttling thing.)
The Internet Health Test checks your connection for signs of any type of degradation.
The test measures whether interconnection points are experiencing issues. It tests the speed from your ISP across multiple interconnection points with other providers. Wildly different results between each check (step) the app runs indicates there are issues between your ISP and other networks.
The test indicates whether your ISP’s connections to networks where popular content and services are hosted show any congestion. If one connection is noticeably slower than the others, there is a good chance your ISP may be throttling content from that network.
As you can see in the screenshot below, my connection was not being throttled while connecting to the networks included in the test, as all readings were close to the same number.
Use the WhatsMyIP.org port scanners tests to see which ports are being blocked. You can use their P2P Port Test to see if your ISP is throttling your BitTorrent connection.
A valuable tool that is no longer available, but still has valuable information available about ISP “traffic shaping,” is Glasnost.
The testing app ran on Java applet technology, which is no longer supported in modern browsers. Apple even shut down Java runtime ability in its OS X operating system a few years ago. While the test is no longer available, check out the website for some useful info.
How to Stop ISP Throttling From Happening
The best, proven way to stop your ISP from throttling your data streams isn’t to call and complain, hire a lawyer or contact the FCC. Nope. Any of these will take months, if not years, of hassle to show any benefit – if they ever do. The easiest way to get around your ISP’s throttling efforts is to use a proxy server or a VPN.
Use a Proxy Server
While a proxy server will offer much slower download speeds, it has the advantage of usually being free.
While there are pay-for-play proxy servers available, which provide improved performance, I believe if you’re going to pay for a service, you should go ahead and sign up for a good VPN provider. A VPN offers data encryption, better protection and better performance than any proxy server.
A proxy server is a server that acts as an intermediary, taking requests from client computers (that would be your computer) and delivering content from other computers to the clients.
A proxy server can easily be set up to make P2P requests. While it’s beyond the scope of this article to detail how a proxy server can be used for P2P/Torrenting, Zero Paid has a nice tutorial on how to set everything up.
When searching for an honest proxy server provider, it’s a good idea to stick to trusted vendors. CyberGhost offers an excellent proxy service, which can be used without the fear that someone is monitoring everything you send through the proxy server.
Use a VPN
A VPN is an excellent choice for blocking your ISP from throttling your traffic, especially P2P/Torrenting traffic.
A good VPN encrypts the data you are sending and receiving, directing it through a protected tunnel. Your ISP will be able to see that you’re sending and receiving data, but it won’t be able to tell what kind of traffic it is.
It should be noted that although using a VPN connection will stop your ISP from detecting that you’re using your internet connection for torrenting or any other type of traffic that the ISP throttles out of hand, it won’t protect you from data-throttling that kicks in when you’ve used too much of your monthly data allotment.
That said, let’s look closer at using a VPN to prevent throttling.
What to Look For in a VPN
In order to shield your internet connection from a throttle-happy ISP, you‘ll need to find a VPN that offers the following features:
You want your VPN to have a no-logs policy. That way, even if your ISP somehow finds out which VPN provider you’re using, they can’t request the logs showing your usage via the VPN because those records don’t exist.
You might also look for a VPN that allows you to pay for a subscription via Bitcoin or another encrypted currency.
If there is no credit card information connected to the account, no matter what your ISP can find out, there is no connection to you. If Bitcoin is out of your comfort zone, some VPN providers also take merchant gift cards as payment, which is another great anonymous form of payment.
Deep Packet Inspection Prevention
ISPs have a new favorite go-to tool to detect users who are making use of a VPN to keep their connection under wraps.
Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) allows ISPs to identify the source of data via inference based on the data packet head. A good VPN will protect against this, so even the data packet head is encrypted and anonymized.
“Kill Switch” Data-Leak Protection
It’s just the nature of the beast that your VPN service will occasionally go down while you’re connected to it. When that happens, it’s possible your data usage could “leak” to the ISP.
You will want a VPN with a built-in “kill switch” which disconnects any data-using apps if the VPN disconnects. You’ll also want to look for a VPN that can protect against IPv4, IPv6 and DNS data leaks.
Shared IP Addresses
An IP address is how other computers on the internet find you and know where to send the data you request. It’s also how your ISP knows what you’re doing on their network.
When you connect to a VPN provider that assigns shared IP addresses, your ISP can’t tell your activity from the hundreds of other people who are also sharing that IP address. Plus, that anonymity helps protect your connection from Denial of Service attacks.
Any good VPN provider will offer multiple protocols you can use to protect your connection. The protocols encrypt your connection to protect your data from prying eyes. A good VPN will provide multiple protocols and allow you to switch to them whenever you’d like.
Best VPNs to Protect Against Throttling
ExpressVPN – 4.7 Stars
ExpressVPN fits all of the criteria we laid out above. It also offers a wealth of other features, making it perfect for any user looking for great all-around VPN protection.
ExpressVPN features an easy-to-set-up app, which is available for the Windows, Mac, iOS and Android platforms. The service provides fast connections and excellent customer support.
The service provides total support for P2P/BitTorrenting and respects their customers’ right to use the VPN connection in any manner they prefer. They do not keep logs and offer a Bitcoin payment option, providing complete anonymity.
The service starts at $12.95 per month, which is a small price to pay for great VPN protection. They provide nice discounts to those customers willing to spring for a 6-month or 12-month subscription.
For more information, visit the ExpressVPN website.
Private Internet Access VPN – 4.1 Stars
Private Internet Access VPN (PIA) hits all of the points for protecting your internet connection from throttling. While it offers a somewhat dated-looking interface, it hits all the right notes when it comes to protection, value for your money and customer service.
PIA keeps no logs – which, as mentioned before, is always a great feature/non-feature. Their Bitcoin payment option means you can truly go incognito when using the service, so there is no connection between your payment info and your account.
PIA is one of the most reasonably-priced VPN services available today, starting at $6.95 per month, dropping to $5.99 per month and $3.33 per month if you’re willing to agree to a 6-month or 12-month buy-in, respectively.
For more information, visit the Private internet Access VPN website.
IPVanish – 4.3 Stars
IPVanish also hits all the right notes when it comes to protecting a user’s internet connection from throttling. This is a great, no-compromises VPN service that’s ideal for any VPN-related activity I’ve been able to think of.
As any full-featured VPN service should, it offers P2P/BitTorrenting support – with the usual caveat about illegal content and such. The service keeps no logs of any kind and provides the ever-popular (at least around here) Bitcoin payment option. Instant anonymity, baby!
IPVanish offers competitive pricing, starting at $10 per month, and good discounts for 3-month and 1-year commitments.
For more information, visit the IPVanish VPN website.
If you think your Internet Service Provider is throttling your connection, you’ll want to take a closer look at the speeds you’re receiving from your provider. You should:
Monitor Your Internet Connection Speed
Run speed tests at various times of day. This way, you’ll get a true idea of what to expect over the course of the day. Also, pay close attention to when your connection slows and what you’re doing at the time.
Check Your Connection for Throttling
Run the throttling tests offered by The Internet Health Test and other websites. This will help indicate whether your internet connection is simply slow from heavy use in your area, or if your provider may be throttling connections to other provider networks.
Ask Other Users About Their Experiences
Check with other users of your ISP to see what their experiences with the provider have been. If they report experiences similar to yours, it could indicate your ISP does use throttling to control your traffic.
Subscribe to a Reliable VPN Provider
Find a reliable VPN provider (like my #1 favorite provider, ExpressVPN) to help you prevent your ISP from throttling your connection.
With just a little work on your part, you can detect and prevent ISP-throttling of your connection. Then you’ll receive the actual performance and content access you pay for each month.
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