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Experiencing slow Wi-Fi? It could be caused by internet throttling. Here's how to tell

Internet service providers throttling your connection could really slow down your internet speed, but you may be able to fix the problem at home with a VPN.

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Internet throttling is real, but a VPN could be a solution.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Slow internet speeds can be caused by a number of things. Your router could be outdated or it could be too far away from your TV or computer, for example. Those fixes may be as easy as restarting your modem and router or upgrading to a mesh network. But another reason for your slow Wi-Fi could be bandwidth throttling. Resulting from the 2019 Supreme Court decision declining to hear an appeal on net neutrality, ISPs can still legally stifle your internet, limiting your broadband if you're streaming more TV than they want and serving slower connections to websites owned by their competitors. 

One solution to slow Wi-Fi -- if it is, in fact, 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 it comes with some limitations and downsides, which I'll discuss below. 

The cause of your sluggish Wi-Fi connection might be something simpler; maybe you just need to reposition your router or need to add a Wi-Fi range extender. We'll walk you through how to tell if throttling is to blame and, if not, what to do about fixing your crummy Wi-Fi.

Read more: 11 ways to make your Wi-Fi faster

Read more: The best Wi-Fi extender for almost everybody 

STEP 1

First, troubleshoot your slow internet connection

So your Wi-Fi is slow and you think your service provider is throttling your connection. Before you jump to those conclusions, it's important to run through the usual troubleshooting list: Check that your router is centrally located in your home, reposition its antennas, double check your network security and so on. If you want to read about more ways to optimize your Wi-Fi, check out our suggestions.

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

STEP 2

Test your internet speed

Screenshot by David Priest/CNET

Once you've made sure there are no simple explanations to your Wi-Fi woes, you can get a more in-depth measurement of the health of your internet in a number of ways. I would suggest starting out with a simple test through M-Lab. This will check your connection speed, essentially gauging whether your ISP is providing consistent performance no matter the content you're accessing. This measurement isn't perfect, but it's a good starting place.

How fast is your internet connection? Here's an easy way to find out.

 

STEP 3

Find a reliable VPN

Norton

If you've done a basic first test on your internet health, and you still think something may be awry with your ISP, start researching VPNs. There are dozens of reasons to get a VPN, and just as many factors to take into account while searching for the best virtual private network, such as security, price and server locations. Luckily, we've done that work for you already. Check out our suggestions here:

CNET's picks for best VPNs.

 

STEP 4

Compare your speed with the VPN

Screenshot by David Priest/CNET

Next, test your internet speed somewhere like Fast.com or Speedtest.net. Compare the results to the same test when your VPN is active. The use of any VPN should cut your speed considerably, so the speed tests should show a discrepancy, with the VPN-active speed 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.

STEP 5

Fix your internet

Screenshot by David Priest/CNET

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

  • If you do have options, use the best provider in your area. Measurement Lab provides a good resource for finding info specific to your region, and that can guide you to a more reliable ISP.
  • 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 I can't guarantee lasting results, but providers have responded positively to such tactics when I've used them.

Read more about the best VPNs to use while working from home, the fastest VPNs, and VPNs you can try free before buying. And here are the best high-speed ISPs. Plus, how to find the best free Wi-Fi if you can't connect at home and what internet speed do you really need?

Correction, Feb. 10, 2020: This article previously misattributed 2019's net neutrality ruling to the Supreme Court, rather than the DC Circuit Court that decided the case. The Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal.