What is data throttling and how do I get around it? A guide to how providers limit your internet speed
Data throttling is the process through which internet service providers (ISPs) massively lower your internet speed, either because you’ve exceeded your data cap or because too many people are using up the network’s bandwidth at once. Some ISPs will also throttle your internet if they detect you’re using a lot of peer-to-peer (P2P) connections, or if they’re trying to cut costs.
While data throttling can be frustrating, it is an ever-present tool for ISPs to enforce data caps and manage the network’s congestion. However, there might be certain times when your ISP is treating you unfairly, or you might need to get around data throttling altogether.
Even ISPs that advertise unlimited data, may implement data throttling. Usually, this is done during times of high network congestion and is especially common on mobile internet plans. Make sure to read the details of your plan carefully to find out if there’s a throttling threshold in place.
What is data throttling?
Data throttling refers to a massive slowdown in your internet speed intentionally implemented by your ISP without your knowledge. If you’ve ever had streaming all but stop toward the end of the month and had all but the most basic internet activities slowed to a near-halt, you’ve experienced data throttling.
This term is often used for a less drastic slowing of your data in times of congestion as well, although that is actually called data deprioritization. Deprioritization, while still frustrating, often leaves enough internet speed for most activities outside of gaming and streaming.
Many ISPs offer an “Unlimited” data plan, but these often still have a throttling threshold. However, if your ISP doesn’t outline its data throttling procedure in a document signed by you, this could be a crime. In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sees this as an offense punishable by up to $25,000 in fines. (1)
Why does data throttling happen?
There are four main reasons why your ISP may choose to lower your internet speed:
- Managing congestion: At peak hours, like when everyone gets home from work and wants to watch Netflix, your ISP will experience a huge influx of traffic. This is called congestion. When this happens, the ISP may not be able to provide internet speeds close to your bandwidth. Because of this, they’ll reduce heavy users’ connection speeds so that everyone gets internet access.
- Enforcing data caps: Most ISPs have moved away from overage fees and onto data throttling to help them enforce data caps. If you pay for a specific amount of data per month, your ISP may begin to throttle your data when you get close to that limit or exceed it. While this can help you conserve what data you have left, it can also be frustrating if you need high-speed internet access.
- Limiting peer-to-peer (P2P) transfers: Peer-to-peer networks are commonplace in torrenting, crypto, as well as a variety of other places. It’s a well-known fact torrenting is a bandwidth-intensive activity, and has dubious legality across the world. Because of this, many ISPs will throttle P2P traffic to free up more data for everyone.
- Economic reasons: It has become more prevalent for ISPs to throttle traffic in order to divert users to a higher-cost plan, a partner website, or simply to cut costs.
What types of internet experience throttling the most?
Generally speaking, throttling is most common for wireless and mobile ISPs (2), and it’s also more intense and aggressive than home internet throttling.
By far the biggest culprit when it comes to data throttling is mobile data plans for phones and tablets. Usually, these will have small data caps, as well as extremely aggressive throttling that might have you waiting minutes just to load a simple Google search.
The biggest chances of home internet throttling come from those using satellite internet. This is due to low high-speed data caps across major providers. If you’re worried that you might be throttled, read your chosen plan in detail, and try to minimize bandwidth-intensive activities like torrenting or gaming.
During times of bad weather, your signal will weaken, which may lead your ISP to throttle traffic in less affected areas to be able to assign more bandwidth to you. Conversely, if another place is experiencing weather issues, your ISP might throttle your data to be able to assign more bandwidth there to compensate for the weak signal.
Cable and DSL internet users experience throttling quite rarely, with a majority of providers giving you access to unlimited data. However, you may still be throttled. Many of these have a Fair Use Policy (FUP) detailing their rules, usually due to other issues related to distance or congestion.
The best type of internet for avoiding throttling is fiber. The best fiber internet providers, including AT&T, provide unlimited data plans with no throttling. While AT&T has had its share of throttling issues (3), those seem to have gone away. Today, AT&T follows a transparent system, and nobody is asking “does AT&T throttle data?” at every corner.
How can you tell if your internet is being throttled?
Studies show internet throttling and other deployed traffic differentiation practices are abundant in today’s world (4), with many of these instances occurring in times of light traffic. Because of this, it’s worth checking if your internet is being throttled even if you don’t experience significant issues with daily internet use.
Signs that your internet may be throttled include:
- Buffering and lag while streaming
- You’re seeing numbers a lot lower than your bandwidth on internet speed tests
- Certain sites are a lot slower than others such as HTTP sites, streaming platforms, and competitor ISP sites
- Slower internet speed than usual
- Low download speeds
- Lower than required gaming performance
There is one way you can know for certain though, and that’s by comparing your internet speed with and without a reputable VPN. When you use the VPN, it’ll obscure your traffic, effectively hiding you from your ISP. The way you test it is quite simple:
- Open an internet speed test
- Run the test and note your results
- Install a VPN service
- Run the same test again and note down the results
If your internet speed is higher with the VPN, chances are high that your internet is being throttled.
How to bypass data throttling
There are many ways to get around data throttling, depending on what tools you’re willing to rely on and how much you can budget for your internet bill. Here are some of the best ways:
Get a different ISP or plan
The easiest way to bypass data throttling is to choose an ISP that doesn’t throttle your data, or by picking a plan that removes throttling if you’re already using one of them. Do note that some of these providers and plans have overage charges. This means that if you exceed your data cap, you’ll still get to use high-speed data, but you’ll have to pay for it. There are a variety of ISPs that have at least one plan without data throttling:
|AT&T||AT&T Unlimited Elite plan||n/a|
|Buckeye Broadband||All plans||Overage charges, but there's a fully unlimited plan available|
|Verizon||Unlimited home plans||Mobile plans still have throttling|
|Rise Broadband||All plans||Overage charges–you'll have to pay for any bandwidth past your cap|
Notably, most of the no-throttling ISPs deal with fiber internet, so the list may be significantly shorter if fiber isn’t available to you.
Many ISPs, including some of the most popular choices in the US, use throttling.
- Xfinity: torrenting and congestion
- Cox: excessive data usage and streaming
- HughesNet: excessive data usage and congestion
- Viasat: almost exclusively congestion, relies more on deprioritization than throttling
- Mediacom: torrenting and congestion
Use a VPN
Using a virtual private network (VPN) is a surefire way to bypass data throttling. The VPN will disguise your traffic from the ISP so that it can’t easily throttle your connection. For this, we recommend using top entries in the field such as ExpressVPN or NordVPN due to their high utility outside of halting internet throttling.
Unfortunately, VPNs don’t work particularly well for satellite internet. This is due to VPNs relying on a low-latency environment, while satellite internet is notorious for its high latency. If truly necessary, most VPNs will function with satellite, but your experience will be a lot slower.
However, if all you need a VPN for is to bypass throttling by your ISP, it might be better to go for a free option such as ProtonVPN. However, free VPNs do come with their fair share of downsides, as many of them are known to sell your data. Furthermore, most free VPNs have data caps, and some, like ProtonVPN, won’t work with streaming platforms.
Take advantage of a proxy server
A proxy server, much like a VPN, will encrypt your traffic and make it a lot more challenging for the ISP to track your activity. With that being said, this method is largely less effective than using a VPN.
Work around your data limits
If the reason your ISP is throttling your data is that you’re going over your cap often, you can lower how much you do certain activities. Activities that use up a lot of bandwidth include gaming, streaming videos, or downloading very large files.
How to bypass throttling on mobile internet
Mobile internet providers are known for their aggressive approach to throttling. If you’ve ever felt your internet suddenly fall down to almost unusable speeds, you’ll know how frustrating it can be.
Thankfully, there are a few things you can do to bypass mobile internet throttling:
- Using a high-quality VPN to disguise your traffic from your ISP
- Connecting to Wi-Fi at home
- Taking advantage of a proxy server
- Trying to work under your data cap
- Switch to a plan or ISP that offers unlimited high-speed data
- Using public Wi-Fi when possible
Do keep in mind that if you’ve gone over your data cap, there are high chances a VPN or proxy server won’t cut it to bypass throttling. In these cases, you’ll need to rely on Wi-Fi or switch your plan or provider.
Is data throttling coming to an end?
Despite the battle for Net Neutrality reaching new heights (5), data throttling is alive and well in the US for now. ISPs are increasingly relying on it even during times of low traffic, so it’s worthwhile to keep options in your pocket that’ll help you bypass it. Whether you use a high-quality VPN or simply go for a different internet service provider that doesn’t use throttling, hopefully, you can make data throttling a problem of the past.
Ilija Miljkovac is a Switchful writer with 7 years of experience covering all things tech. He writes about everything from cybersecurity to ISPs, ensuring businesses and customers are educated about the latest products and services. He's written for publications such as Business2Community, TheTechReport, Comparitech, and more. When he's not maniacally hacking away at his keyboard, Ilija spends his time either hiking in nature or holed up in his apartment gaming.
Michal directs the Switchful content strategy and leads the editorial team. With a bachelor’s degree in Communications, she has more than a decade of experience in the world of marketing communications. Her diverse career has included public relations, brand development, digital strategies, and more; her key skillset has always been centered around strategic efforts for consumer-focused initiatives. In her free time, you can find her camping with friends, chasing waterfalls on her kayak, or searching for the best restaurants in Salt Lake City.
Bri Field has a background in academia, research writing, and brand marketing. She has edited scientific publications, conference papers, digital content, and technical communications. As Assigning Editor, she enjoys ensuring all content is accurate, clear, and helpful. In her free time, you can find her in the kitchen trying a new recipe, out on a hike, or working through her massive TBR list.
Endnotes and sources
- "Open Internet Ombudsperson." FCC. Accessed 10 February 2023.
- "What Is Internet Throttling And How Can You Test It." Forbes. Accessed 25 February 2023.
- "AT&T Data Throttling Settlement." FTC. Accessed 13 February 2023.
- "A Large-Scale Analysis of Deployed Traffic Differentiation Practices." Fangfan Li et al. Accessed 10 February 2023.
- "TELL PRESIDENT BIDEN: NO MORE TELECOM SHILLS AT THE FCC. NOMINATE A NET NEUTRALITY AND PRIVACY CHAMPION" Battle For The Net." Accessed 18 February 2023.