A slow internet experience is one of the key signs your internet service provider (ISP) may be throttling. You could notice that your download speeds are slow, videos keep buffering or certain websites seem slower to load. Some websites may even be blocked or not functioning when you try to visit them.
How to tell if your internet is likely being throttled by your ISP: Try running an internet speed test. Confirm whether your speed matches what you’re paying for. Then check your service agreement – if your ISP imposes data caps, throttling is a possibility.
What is internet throttling?
Throttling occurs when an ISP reduces the bandwidth or speed of a resident’s home network connection. This could have a negative impact on the overall experience of home internet, limiting a person’s ability to work, learn and tap into entertainment online at high speeds.
So why do some internet service providers throttle customers? Here are four reasons.
(1) Reduce bandwidth congestion
Wireless internet relies on cell towers. So if there’s heavy usage around certain towers, ISPs may throttle the internet to try to improve bandwidth distribution across customers. Even though this may result in slower speeds, the aim is generally to benefit customers by equalizing their internet speeds.
“When it comes to traffic management, most carriers would suggest that the way they do this, customers shouldn’t notice an impact in an ideal situation,” said Brian Ragsdale, director of product management for Kinetic by Windstream.
(2) Enforce data caps
Some ISPs have limits on customer data usage, which is noted in service agreements. If a customer’s usage goes over that allotment during a billing cycle, the ISP may throttle in order to decrease that customer’s available bandwidth. This type of slow-down may be more obvious to customers.
“A lot of carriers will communicate this up front,” Ragsdale said. “They may say you have a lot of data up to a certain limit, they may even call it ‘unlimited,’ but once you get past a certain usage amount, your speeds will be slower. So you may technically have unlimited data, but not at the same speed that you’re paying for up to a certain point.”
How to tell if your internet is being throttled to enforce data caps: Log into your account on your ISP’s app or website to see if you’ve gone over your limit for the month. If you have, that may be why you’re experiencing slower speeds.
(3) Traffic prioritization
Net neutrality is the idea that your provider shouldn’t manage customers’ surfing activities online and shouldn’t change their speed performance based on what they're doing. But net neutrality isn’t legally enforced, so ISPs can prioritize certain traffic for a fee.
“For example, they may have their own streaming service, and then choose to throttle down other competing streaming services that customers are using,” Ragsdale said. “Or if they want certain sites or applications to load faster, they can prioritize traffic to where those sites are faster. This creates a high-speed lane to certain sites or applications, and if you don’t pay a certain fee or premium, you have to deal with that.”
(4) Blocking illegal activity
ISPs are generally not considered liable for a customer’s behavior online, even if that customer is using the internet for illegal acts such as copyright infringement, software piracy, credit card fraud and more. But the ISPs can still respond to illegal activity if they notice it happening.
“An ISP may throttle if they deem certain traffic to be illegal or outside of the bounds of residential terms and conditions of service,” Ragsdale said.
No “normal” usage should trigger throttling for illegal activity. General gaming, streaming and surfing should keep customers in the clear.
How to avoid throttling
“The most classic reason for throttling is wrapped around data caps,” Ragsdale said. “If your ISP throttles, it’s not something a customer can control or limit other than to use less data. You could make choices based on that data cap, like limiting your gaming and streaming.”
For home internet users who don’t want to make those limiting choices, the simplest way to avoid throttling is to choose an ISP with no data caps.
“It’s possible for ISPs to provide service agreements without data caps because there are enough customers who use their internet service moderately,” Ragsdale said. “Kinetic doesn’t have any data caps, therefore we don’t put any network throttling upon our customers no matter how much they’ve used.”
Without data caps or throttling, home internet users can game, stream and surf all they want, at the high speeds they’re paying for.