How to Determine if Your Internet Provider Is Limiting Your Speeds

You might not think to blame your internet provider when you’re staring at a buffering wheel. After all, a lot could be going wrong — like an outdated router or a less-than-ideal router location. You might be able to solve slow speeds with an easy fix, like upgrading to a mesh network (which also has to be set up in the right spot) or simply restarting your modem and router.

But suppose you’ve already attempted these tried-and-true methods, and your internet speeds are still subpar. In that case, the issue might be something your internet service provider is intentionally doing: bandwidth throttling.

CNET Home Tips logo

You read that right. Your ISP could be making your Wi-Fi slower on purpose. Because of a 2019 Supreme Court decision in which the court declined to hear an appeal on net neutrality, ISPs can still legally stifle your internet in the US. This means they can limit your broadband if you stream more TV than they want, or they can serve slower connections to websites owned by their competitors. The Federal Communications Commission recently announced efforts to restore net neutrality rules that ban throttling, but the practice is still legal for now.

One solution to slow Wi-Fi (if it’s caused by internet throttling) is a virtual private network. Basically, ISPs need to see your IP address to slow down your internet, and a good VPN will shield that identity — though this comes with some limitations and downsides, which we’ll discuss below. We’ll walk you through how to tell if throttling is to blame and, if so, what to do about fixing your crummy Wi-Fi.

Troubleshoot your slow internet connection

So your Wi-Fi is slow, and you think your service provider is throttling your connection. Before jumping to that conclusion, it’s important to first run through the usual troubleshooting list: Check that your router is centrally located in your home, reposition its antennas, double-check your network security, etc. If your laggy internet is due to your router being too weak to reach every room in your house, consider purchasing a Wi-Fi extender to boost your connectivity.

If you’ve run through the laundry list and your Wi-Fi is still chugging slowly, move on to the next step.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Fast/Screenshot by CNET

Compare your speed with the VPN

Next, test your internet speed somewhere, like Fast.com or Speedtest.net. Compare the results with the same test when your VPN is active. Using any VPN should cut your speed considerably, so the speed tests should show a discrepancy, with the VPN-active speed being notably slower than the VPN-inactive speed. But a VPN also hides the IP address that providers use to identify you, so if your speed test with the VPN is faster than without the VPN, that may mean your ISP is targeting your IP address for throttling.

OK, this is the hard part. Even if you find out your provider is throttling your internet, there may not be much you can do. Many people in the US live in regions with ISP monopolies or duopolies, so you might be unable to find a better provider. But here are a few hopefully useful suggestions:

  • If you do have options, consider switching to a better provider in your area. Not only will you potentially put speed throttling to rest, but you may end up with faster speeds and a better deal. Check out our top picks for ISPs and high-speed ISPs in 2023.

  • Use your VPN to maintain more consistent speeds. A VPN can’t solve a bad connection or other reasons behind your slow service, but it can mitigate throttling from unscrupulous ISPs.

  • Call your provider and threaten to switch providers if they don’t stop throttling your internet. This might seem old-fashioned and doesn’t guarantee lasting results, but some providers have responded positively to such tactics.

If your provider is not limiting your bandwidth and you just have slower speeds than expected, check out our suggestions to learn about optimizing your Wi-Fi and how to speed up your home Wi-Fi.

Bandwidth throttling FAQs

What is bandwidth throttling? Is it legal?

If you’re noticing a long buffering time when trying to stream your favorite television show, you might be experiencing bandwidth throttling. This happens when your ISP purposely slows down your internet speeds by controlling your bandwidth. Unfortunately, it’s still legal and very common — despite President Joe Biden signing an executive order in 2021 to get bandwidth throttling banned.

Why do ISPs throttle bandwidth?

There’s no exact answer to why ISPs limit some people’s connection and not others’. However, if a network is congested and you’re using a lot of internet bandwidth, your provider might slow down your service to encourage you to pay for more data. Or, if you have a data cap and you notice a laggy connection, your ISP might be limiting your service when you’re near the end of the cap.

How can I check if my ISP is throttling my bandwidth?

If you’ve checked your internet speed through an Ethernet connection and your results still didn’t improve, you might want to check if your provider is to blame. By using a simple connection speed test, like the one through M-Lab, you can see if your ISP is providing consistent performance no matter the content you’re accessing.

How do I stop my ISP from throttling my bandwidth?

A VPN, or virtual private network, is a good solution to help combat internet throttling. Since VPNs can hide your identity, your provider can’t use your IP address to slow down your connection, helping you maintain more constant speeds. Besides using a VPN, consider switching to a new provider for faster speeds and, possibly, a better deal.


Posted

in

by