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Bandwidth Blues: Spotting Internet Throttling and How You Can Fix It

Slow internet speeds got you down? It could be your broadband provider. Learn how to identify internet throttling and what you can do about it.

David Priest Former editor
David Priest is an award-winning writer and editor who formerly covered home security for CNET.
David Priest
5 min read
a TP Link gaming router lit in red with a dark background

If your ISP is throttling your internet, a VPN might be a solution. 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

You might not think to blame your internet provider when you're staring at a buffering wheel. After all, there are several suspects. It could be an outdated router. Maybe you have a less-than-ideal router location. You could potentially 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 what if 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.

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You read that right. Your ISP could be making your Wi-Fi slower on purpose. The Federal Communications Commission voted in 2023 to restore net neutrality rules that ban throttling, but the practice is still legal for now. Moreover, due to the 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.

Locating local internet providers

One solution to slow Wi-Fi (if it's caused by internet throttling) is a virtual private network. Basically, providers 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.

Read more: My Home Internet Journey: What I Learned From Testing Wi-Fi and Ethernet Connections

Locating local internet providers

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.

Test your internet speed

Once you've ensured there are no simple explanations for your Wi-Fi woes, you can get a more in-depth measurement of your internet's health in several ways. By starting with a simple test through M-Lab or Ookla, you can check your connection speed and gauge whether your ISP provides 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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Find a reliable VPN

If you've done a basic first test on your internet health and still think something may be awry with your ISP, start researching VPNs. There are many reasons to get a VPN and just as many factors to consider while searching for the best virtual private network, such as security, price and server locations. We've done that work for you already: Check out CNET's picks for the best VPNs.

Also, read more about the best VPNs to use while working from home, the fastest VPNs and VPNs you can try free before buying.

Fast/Screenshot by CNET

Compare your speed with the VPN

Next, test your internet speed using a service 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.

Fix your internet

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 2024.
  • 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 have slower speeds than expected, check out our suggestions to learn how to optimize the Wi-Fi in your apartment.

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 common. However, the FCC voted to move forward with net neutrality rules in late 2023, which would regulate ISPs and ban throttling. Past efforts were also made when President Joe Biden signed an executive order in 2021 to get bandwidth throttling banned.

Why do ISPs throttle bandwidth?

There's no exact answer why ISPs limit some people's connections and not others'. 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 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.