How Can I Tell If My ISP Is Throttling My Internet?
You may be able to determine if your internet service provider (ISP) is throttling your internet speeds by using a virtual private network (VPN).
To do this, connect a computer to your modem using an Ethernet cable and run our speed test. Then, open a virtual private network (VPN) client—we provide a list of the best VPNs—and rerun the test. If your connection is significantly faster while using the VPN, your ISP is likely throttling your service.
This trick works because ISPs sometimes throttle your speeds when they notice certain types of traffic, like torrenting. However, a VPN encrypts your data and connection, so the ISP can’t see what you’re doing online.
Of course, there are reasons for slower speeds other than ISP throttling, like traffic congestion and general connection issues. We’ll walk you through everything you need to know about internet bandwidth throttling to determine if that is indeed your issue.
What is throttling?
Throttling is when your ISP intentionally limits your internet speeds. Providers do this for several reasons, and it can manifest as a sloth-like connection.
Why do ISPs throttle your connection?
ISPs have many reasons for throttling your internet connection. But these are the top four culprits:
- Network congestion
- Exceeding data caps
- Paid prioritization
- Forbidden activity
All ISPs throttle bandwidth to some extent in order to manage network traffic. For example, a single fiber line that serves multiple neighborhoods may throttle speeds in order to distribute bandwidth evenly among the neighbors who are currently using the internet. This kind of throttling is necessary for ISPs to mitigate the slowdowns caused by network congestion. When it’s done properly, you shouldn’t even notice that your speed is being throttled.
Problems arise when ISPs discriminate against specific users unnecessarily. For example, in 2010, the US Court of Appeals ruled that Comcast had unfairly targeted peer-to-peer network users when there were much better and more fair ways of managing network traffic.1 The idea that ISPs shouldn’t be able to discriminate against certain kinds of users is one of the core principles of net neutrality.
Exceeding data caps
Some ISPs limit how much data you can send and receive during one billing cycle. They will reduce your bandwidth if your downloads exceed that limit.
Keep in mind that everything you access online requires a download, whether it’s just a web page, a mobile app, or streaming video. Moreover, everything you do requires an upload, too, like requesting access to a website, sending an email, posting to social media, and so on.
All this interaction with the internet uses your monthly data allotment. ISPs usually offer a way to monitor your data usage through an app or online portal so you don’t go overboard throughout the month.
Any ISP that enforces a data cap must include that information in your service agreement. So, if you’re experiencing throttling, take a look at your contract or call customer service.
Here’s a list of internet service providers with data caps:
- Buckeye Broadband
- Cable ONE
A few internet providers without data caps are Spectrum, Frontier, and RCN.
Sometimes ISPs will throttle your speeds, not because of anything you or the people around you are doing, but because another company paid them to. Paid prioritization, often referred to as an “internet fast lane,” allows companies to pay an ISP to prioritize its data over other data on the network. While often framed as beneficial or necessary, paid prioritization can lead to several unfortunate scenarios:
- An ISP provides its own proprietary streaming service and throttles Netflix, Hulu, and similar services, making them unable to compete.
- An ISP wants a specific website to pay for faster load times.
- An ISP starts offering a premium “fast lane” for certain popular sites, thereby throttling speeds for everyone who doesn’t pay the premium fee in addition to their normal monthly fee.
All of this is good for ISP but terrible for consumers. Moreover, paid prioritization used to be illegal until the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed the net neutrality laws in 2018.
ISPs can throttle internet connections when the customer participates in illegal online activities.
How do I stop throttling?
Use a VPN to bypass ISP throttling. It creates a secure, encrypted tunnel between you and a dedicated server. This server then decrypts your data and sends it to the destination in plaintext. This data does not include your IP address or any other information that can link back to you.
However, some ISPs may throttle your bandwidth if they detect your VPN (some VPNs can ignore this). Be sure that you’re using the best VPN for your needs, as the wrong one can make your internet throttling issues worse.
Unfortunately, a VPN won’t help with throttling caused by network congestion or data cap overages. In these cases, your ISP restricts the total amount of bandwidth rather than a specific type of data.
If your throttling issues stem from data cap overages, you have four options:
- Reduce your monthly usage.
- Pay for more bandwidth.
- Upgrade to a plan with a higher data cap or unlimited data.
- Switch to a provider without data caps.
ISP network congestion
If you have cable internet and you experience slow speeds during peak hours, try one of the following:
- Upgrade to a faster plan
- Use the internet during off-peak hours
For example, try downloading large files between 11:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. when most of your neighbors are asleep. On the flip side, if you’re only paying for 100 Mbps and you need more speed, a 400 Mbps plan may be a better option.
Monitor your download speeds often—especially if you notice continuously slow speeds. Complain to your ISP if you don’t see speeds anywhere near your plan’s advertised bandwidth. You may not get the response you want, but you could also hit the jackpot and receive a free upgrade.
Other reasons for slow internet
Beyond ISP throttling, there are plenty of reasons for slow internet.
First, check the health of your home network if you’ve already ruled out external factors like ISP throttling. You can also reference our complete guide to internet troubleshooting for a full rundown of how to fix home internet issues.
Second, your plan may not supply enough bandwidth to your household. As we rely on the internet more and more for everything from home security to entertainment, it’s easy to grow out of the internet plan you signed up for a few years ago.
- Comcast v. FCC & U.S, 600 F.3d 642, 644 (D.C. Cir. 2010) April 6, 2010. Accessed January 19, 2022.
- GovTrack, “H.R. 1644 — 116th Congress: Save the Internet Act of 2019,” Accessed January 19, 2022.
- Ahmad Hathout, Broadband Breakfast, “Rosenworcel Stands Firm on Net Neutrality in Face of Lawmakers Urging Status Quo,” January 4, 2022. Accessed January 19, 2022.
Author - Kevin Parrish
Kevin Parrish has more than a decade of experience working as a writer, editor, and product tester. He began writing about computer hardware and soon branched out to other devices and services such as networking equipment, phones and tablets, game consoles, and other internet-connected devices. His work has appeared in Tom’s Hardware, Tom's Guide, Maximum PC, Digital Trends, Android Authority, How-To Geek, Lifewire, and others. At HighSpeedInternet.com, he focuses on network equipment testing and review.
Editor - Cara Haynes
Cara Haynes has been editing and writing in the digital space for seven years, and she's edited all things internet for HighSpeedInternet.com for five years. She graduated with a BA in English and a minor in editing from Brigham Young University. When she's not editing, she makes tech accessible through her freelance writing for brands like Pluralsight. She believes no one should feel lost in internet land and that a good internet connection significantly extends your life span.