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Think your service provider is throttling your internet? Here's how to check

Your streaming speeds could be slow for plenty of reasons. Make sure an unethical service provider isn't one of them.

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

At this point in the coronavirus crisis, many of us are leaning more on streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime, which makes it all the more infuriating when a show stutters and stops right at the climax thanks to bad Wi-Fi. The collective groans, the held breath as loading stalls at 99%, the children crying for Elsa or Moana to come back: all of these could be avoided if the internet just stayed steady. But alas, steady internet is rarely our reality, and in many areas, internet service provider options are too limited to solve the problem.

What's worse, with last year's Supreme Court decision to decline to hear an appeal on net neutrality, ISPs can still throttle your internet, limiting your broadband if you're streaming more YouTube or Hulu than they want, and providing slower connections to websites owned by their competitors. Luckily, there's a solution to some of these problems: the virtual private network. Basically, ISPs need to see your IP address to slow down your internet, and a good VPN will shield that identity. Here's how to find one and use it to check whether your ISP is artificially slowing down your internet.

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

Step 1.

Test your internet health

Screenshot by David Priest/CNET

You can measure the health of your internet in a number of ways, but 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.

Step 2.

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 one, 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 3.

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 4.

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.

Correction, Feb. 10: This article previously misattributed last year'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.