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Slow Wi-Fi? Here's How to Tell if Your Internet Provider Is Limiting Your Bandwidth

If your speeds are less than what you're paying for, your broadband provider might be behind 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 After all, a lot could be going wrong -- like an outdated router or a less-than-ideal router location.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 if you've already attempted these tried-and-true methods and your internet speeds are still subpar, the issue might be something your ISP, or internet service provider, is intentionally doing: bandwidth throttling.

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Yes, 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. This means they can limiting your broadband if you stream more TV than they want and they can serve slower connections to websites owned by their competitors. US President Joe Biden signed an executive order in 2021 urging the Federal Communications Commission to restore net neutrality rules that banned throttling, but the practice is still legal.

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 not, what to do about fixing your crummy Wi-Fi. (You can also learn more about how to get free Wi-Fi anywhere in the world.) 

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 those conclusions, it's important to run through the usual troubleshooting list first: Check that your router is centrally located in your home, reposition its antennas, double-check your network security, etc. Check out our suggestions if you want to read about more ways to optimize your Wi-Fi.

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 made sure 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. I suggest starting with a simple test through M-Lab, where 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 dozens of 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. Luckily, we've done that work for you already. Check out our suggestions:

CNET's picks for best VPNs.

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.

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, you may end up with faster speeds and a better deal.

  • 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 and the best Wi-Fi extender for almost everybody

Bandwidth throttling FAQ

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 US 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.