Network Throttling 

What Is Network Throttling?

Network throttling is a term used to describe an intentional slowdown of Internet speed by an Internet Service Provider (ISP). ISPs often throttle or reduce users’ Internet speeds to manage network traffic.

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It’s important to note that it’s not just ISPs that can implement throttling – any network administrator or individual with administrative privileges can prioritize or limit traffic.

Why Do ISPs Implement Network Throttling?

There are many legitimate reasons why ISPs may want to implement network throttling to lower users’ speeds. Some of the most common include:

  • Managing congestion: ISPs will reduce the speeds of users consuming lots of bandwidth streaming videos or playing online games during peak hours so they can distribute bandwidth to other users more evenly.
  • Fulfilling a data cap: An ISP may choose to implement throttling if a user has exceeded their monthly data cap and downloaded more content than agreed under their plan.
  • Discouraging illegal downloads: Some ISPs will attempt to discourage users from torrenting or downloading content illegally from pirate sites by lowering their connection speeds.
  • Saving money: Managing bandwidth among its users enables an ISP to reduce spending on infrastructure.
  • Third-party affiliations: ISPs can alter the speed of websites to try and encourage users to connect to third-party websites and streaming services they’re affiliated with.
  • Incentivizing upgrades: Throttling a user’s connection can be a strategy an ISP uses to incentivize them to upgrade to a better broadband plan.

Is Network Throttling Legal?

Network throttling is legal so long as an ISP explains it to users as part of their contract. In many ways, throttling is necessary to manage bandwidth across a large customer base so that the average user has a stable user experience.

However, while network throttling is legal, it can also be a controversial practice, particularly when an ISP changes a user’s Internet speed to try and influence what sites they visit as part of paid prioritization.

For instance, it’s not necessarily fair to the user for an ISP to deliberately degrades the performance of a streaming website like Netflix or HBO just because a third party has paid them to.

How to Check for Network Throttling

Some of the most common signs of network throttling are:

  • Your download speeds are unusually slow;
  • Internet speed often drops without warning;
  • Some websites or services are slower than others
  • You experience lagging or buffering when streaming videos;
  • Performance degrades at certain times of day (e.g. between 7 and 11 pm).

You can identify whether you’re experiencing network throttling by running a speed test with a tool such as Speedtest.net or Netflix’s Fast.com.

A speed test will enable you to measure whether your ISP is delivering the Internet speed that you’re paying for. If the tested speed is less than what you’re paying for, this suggests your ISP is throttling your connection.

While measuring your Internet speed can be useful for diagnosing network throttling, ISPs also have the ability to inflate your connection if they detect you’re on a testing website.

You can identify throttling in this instance by running a test once normally and then a second time after you’ve connected to a Virtual Private Network (VPN). If the speed you get when using a VPN is higher, this indicates that your ISP has been altering your connection.

How to Fix Network Throttling

Once you’ve established that your connection is being throttled, there are some steps you can take to resolve the issue:

  • Use a VPN: Perhaps the simplest solution is to use a good VPN to encrypt and reroute your traffic through another server so that your ISP can’t see what apps you’re using.
  • Contact your ISP: You can also call or email your ISP to request they lift the throttling measures taken against your connection. They may agree to remove artificial limitations on your connection during off-peak hours.
  • Change your ISP: If your ISP doesn’t acknowledge it’s throttling your connection or you’re unhappy about how these restrictions are being applied, consider switching to an ISP that is more transparent about data caps and bandwidth limits.

How to Prevent Network Throttling

Network throttling can be immensely inconvenient if you’re in the middle of browsing online or working. So if you want to avoid it, there are some simple preventative steps you can take:

  • Use a VPN: Again, using a VPN will reduce the likelihood of being “picked on” for using sites deemed as high-bandwidth, although you’ll still experience throttling during high-traffic periods.
  • Stay within your data cap: Monitor your monthly broadband cap or data cap to avoid exceeding it and putting yourself at risk of extra charges and throttling. If your plan isn’t sufficient, consider upgrading it with your ISP so that you can have more bandwidth to consume each month.
  • Keep high-consumption usage outside of peak times: If possible, avoid high-bandwidth consumption between 7 to 11 pm as this will be when the network is at its peak.

The Bottom Line

While ISPs have a legal right to implement throttling and other network management practices, it can be frustrating for end-users when it results in a poor experience.

Using a VPN is one of the quickest ways to address throttling. And although it isn’t foolproof in addressing reduced speeds during peak times, it can help to protect you against throttling practices targeting particular applications.

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Tim Keary

Since January 2017, Tim Keary has been a freelance technology writer and reporter, covering enterprise technology and information security.