Internet Throttling: What Is It and What You Can Do About It

With more and more Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and mobile networks throttling your bandwidth, what's a poor online gamer, show binger or movie addict to do? My advice is to fight back by testing whether your data connection is being limited by your ISP, and then doing something about it.

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

What Is Throttling?

Typically, throttling is when your ISP limits your bandwidth after you've reached a preset monthly data cap, but it can also occur when an ISP decides to slow certain online destinations. It's all ISP business: In the former, the ISP can charge you less per month in the hope that it doesn't add to its congestion, but in the latter, the ISP may want to get payments from the affected sites, like Netflix or Hulu, for a "full-speed connection." Either way, it means that you can no longer view HD videos, which can feel like torture when a new episode of Ozark goes online or you want to watch Team Solomid on Twitch.

If the comments on Reddit are any indication, it's fairly common for ISPs to throttle bandwidth, keeping even 720p videos from playing. Your only defense against throttling is a good offense, which means reading your contract's fine print, even if it gives you eyestrain or a headache.

For instance, if you thought your T-Mobile One Plan "unlimited" data plan gave you the ability to watch full-resolution videos all month, think again. In fact, the mobile data network typically throttles the speed to about 480p levels once you've hit the 50GB limit in a billing cycle.

So, if around the 25th of the month your data connection feels sluggish, this is probably why.

MORE: How Much Internet Speed Should You Really Pay For?

Build a Case by Gathering Data

Faced with throttling from a major company can leave you feeling pretty helpless, but there's a lot you can do about it. Start by figuring out what's going on by keeping a log, which can be just a piece of paper taped to the modem or router, where you write down when movies need to buffer or your connection seems slow.

I use three more quantitative measures of my connection's actual speed, and it helped when I complained to my ISP's crack staff. The easiest way is to periodically run Ookla's Speedtest.net bandwidth meter. You'll have to put up with a multitude of ads, but the site displays latency (aka Ping) as well as upload and download speeds.

Go into the Results History section and you'll see a great fever graph of how your speed has varied, as well as highs and lows. The individual results are listed below. Happily, everything can be exported as a comma separated data file for examination and used as proof.

Google offers its own video-quality test which not only identifies your ISP, but tabulates the previous day’s video quality as an indication of throttling. Like Speedtest, it shows an overall fever graph, but divides it up based on low-,standard and high-definition video.

A bonus is that it includes a list of other ISPs who might offer you a better deal. The downside is that it considers 720p high def. If you're a full-HD or 4K watcher, it's not as useful.

The best gauge of throttling is to run the Internet Health Test, offered by net neutrality advocacy group Battle for the Internet and M-Lab. After tapping on Start the Test, the site runs five quick bandwidth tests. At the end, you'll see an overall bandwidth number that provides a good indication of your computer's online speed at that moment. The five individual results are displayed below.

What to Do About It

If the tests show that your connection is being throttled, what do you do now? Start by getting mad, because a little righteous indignation can go a long way.

If you think you're being throttled unfairly, complain to your ISP: call, email, go see them at their office. The key is to use the data from the tests to prove your case. You might get lucky and get an upgrade to a better plan at no extra cost. This happened to me when I told them my speed was slower and my monthly price higher than introductory offers despite being a paying customer for 20 years. Happily, the woman doubled my speed for free.

MORE: Best VPN Services for Staying Anonymous Online

If you have a plan that allows throttling, it's a little trickier, but you're not out of luck. You can always upgrade to a plan that doesn’t have a data cap, but it will likely cost you extra. A good negotiating technique is to tell them that you're not satisfied with the service and that you'll move to a different ISP (I have two in my area). That usually gets their attention.

If Negotiation Fails

If your ISP doesn't want to budge, you do have one more option available. You can try using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to hide your IP address, location and data use from the ISP.  If your ISP is throttling your connection based on the services you use – clamping down on your Netflix viewing with slower speeds, for example – then hiding the specifics of your data use is one way around that problem. A VPN creates an encrypted connection to a service's network that can hide your physical location and IP address from your ISP.

There are free VPNs that limit how much data you can move, but a wide variety of paid VPN services that cost roughly 450 a year for unlimited use. This is definitely an area where you get what you pay for, and it doesn't do much good to complain about slow internet and then opt for an even slower VPN. Check out our reviews to find the best VPN for you.

Some cases of throttling can be solved with a VPN, but this doesn't always work. If your internet service provider is enforcing a general data cap, encrypting your data doesn't do any good, since the amount of data used is unchanged.

At the end of the day, all you want is a reliable high-speed connection to get to your favorite games, movies and sites. Don't let your ISP get in the way.

Credit: Tom's Guide