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Why is my internet slow? How to fix bad Wi-Fi

Maybe the solution is simple, maybe not. Here's how to know for sure.

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Months into the coronavirus crisis, good Wi-Fi is more important than ever -- whether you need it for work purposes or just streaming the latest show on Netflix or Hulu to occupy the kiddos and give yourself a much needed 30-minute breather. Alas, steady internet is rarely our reality, and in many areas, monopolies or duopolies of Spectrum, AT&T or other local providers make it hard to just switch companies.

What's worse, with last year's Supreme Court decision to decline to hear an appeal on net neutrality, ISPs can still legally 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 ($13 at CyberGhost) will shield that identity -- though it comes with some limitations and downsides, which I'll discuss below.

Whether you need to reposition your router or you need to consider getting a VPN, here's how to fix your crummy Wi-Fi.

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

Step 1

Run through the usual troubleshooting methods

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 health

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.

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 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 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.

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.