Here’s How Your ISP Is Tricking You – and How a VPN Can Help

It’s no secret that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) throttle your Internet connection. The problem is that they are not very transparent with when and how they do it. One minute you could be watching a crisp 1080p video on YouTube, and the next, it could look like a grainy video on a 2000s flip-phone. Or worse, it could keep buffering forever.

Consequently, you can find many recommendations online for Internet speed test sites such as Fast.com, SpeedOf.Me, TestMy.net, etc. These let people see if they’re getting what they paid for. Some publications even mention that no test is perfect and that you should run multiple ones to get a clearer overall picture. Preferably at different times of the day, but we’ll say more on that subject in a minute.

How Is Your ISP Tricking You, Exactly?

What you don’t see is what’s on the mind of Internet users around the world: are ISPs cheating speed tests? If you google something along the lines of “are speed tests reliable” or “ISP cheating speed test,” you’ll find quite a few discussions surrounding this topic – whether it’s on ISP forums or sites like Reddit and Quora.

However, ISPReview is the only place we’ve seen it reported in any official capacity. The website mentions that Ookla – the owner of speedtest.net – accused UK ISP Pulse8 Broadband of tampering with their speed test results. For context, the speed test on the ISP’s website is also powered by Ookla.

ISPReview cites an in-depth study from Myce.com, which reveals how positive the UK ISP’s speed test results were in comparison to those on TestMy.net. Having said that, we share some of ISPReview’s concerns regarding the study, such as:

  • Testing a single subscriber’s connection may not be enough for a valid accusation.
  • No other speed test sites (aside from Ookla’s and TestMy.net) were used to confirm their findings.
  • They did not verify the connection outside of a testing environment, such as through direct downloads.
  • Different hardware configurations could have been used in order to be more thorough.
  • Testing the connection at different times of the day to account for traffic spikes and similar issues is a must.

There were other factors mentioned, but these are the ones with the most impact on any speed test. Regardless of how thorough the study was, it still begs the question: what if ISPs are rigging other speed test results?

Well, you can always count on US telecoms to show you how it’s done.

The FCC Waived Slow Speeds from Official Scores

Pulse8 Broadband is a small UK ISP, at least relative to massive corporations such as AT&T, Comcast, and similar providers in the US. These giant telecoms have been known to do much shadier stuff, like lobbying Congress so they can sell your online data without permission or doing everything in their power to repeal net neutrality.

And if they could throw money at Congress to serve their own interests, why not strongarm the FCC to make themselves look better, too? A Wall Street Journal piece shows how AT&T, Comcast, and other companies made the FCC waive slower broadband speeds from their “report cards.”

To reiterate, ISPs are manipulating official government speed test results. It’s no wonder that people are skeptical when it comes to the free tools you can find online. ISPs could whitelist traffic to and from speed test services to show the “great service” they offer. Meanwhile, your Netflix show still hasn’t finished buffering.

VPNs to the Rescue

We’ve previously covered what a VPN is and how to bypass ISP throttling using one. But seeing the tricks ISPs try to pull nowadays, it’s worth reminding people how they can regain control of their Internet speeds.

How do they work? Basically, a VPN will encrypt your network traffic – meaning no third parties can see what websites you access or what data you send and receive. All they’d see is gibberish encrypted text – probably not as cool-looking as “The Matrix,” but it works.

In any case, this means:

  • No run-of-the-mill hackers looking to get a hold of your passwords, credit card info, or other valuable data
  • No government surveillance and other snooping around your browsing activity
  • Not even your ISP can see what websites or services you use. Do note that your ISP can still see if you’re using a VPN.

Regardless, that last part is exactly how you can avoid bandwidth throttling. Since your ISP can’t see if you’re watching Netflix, YouTube, downloading a game, etc., they won’t be able to throttle that traffic selectively.

It’s especially helpful to use a VPN for torrenting. Even though there are plenty of legal uses for torrents (such as fast sharing of large work files), many ISPs still associate it with piracy. This also applies to locations with public Wi-Fi, such as hotels, airports, and so on. As a result, torrent traffic is usually the first one to get throttled or blocked altogether.

On a related note, if you’re concerned about data logging from your ISP, you should probably look into a “no-logs” VPN. Your VPN provider can still see your network traffic, so it’s better for your privacy if they don’t log that data, to begin with.

Is Your ISP Tricking You, or Is It a Necessary Sacrifice?

Let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment and say that your ISP isn’t manipulating speed test results. Even an Ookla spokesperson that responded to the Myce.com debacle mentioned that “luckily, only a handful of the tens of thousands of ISPs worldwide attempt this.”

As mentioned in the beginning, using only one site to test if your ISP throttles your connection isn’t enough. Most throttling happens at the protocol level – meaning your ISP might simply reduce the quality of your video streams while not limiting your maximum bandwidth. In that case, a speed test would just show that you are getting the speeds you’re paying for.

You could say your ISP is tricking you here as well, but it’s not as bad as downright manipulating speed tests. This is actually how ISPs, YouTube, Netflix, and other streaming platforms are dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic.

Despite more stringent rules on bandwidth throttling in the EU, European ISPs are allowed to throttle as a (hopefully) temporary measure, to keep up with the strain on their network infrastructure. More people are working and accessing the Internet from home, so it’s completely understandable.

YouTube and Netflix have also agreed to reduce the video quality in Europe. In theory, it would be possible to bypass this reduction in video quality by connecting to a VPN server outside of Europe. If they just assign the lower quality video to European IP ranges, that is. For instance, Netflix states that it will reduce bit rates for European streams – but whether it’s on an IP level or through other means is up to speculation.

Why One Speed Test Isn’t Enough

As you’ve seen above, using speed tests won’t reveal whether your ISP is tricking you or just selectively throttling traffic. If you are going to test your Internet connection, try using multiple tools to get a clearer picture of the problem.

Also, try using sites that test a variety of locations rather than just a single one – such as this one by DSLReports. It’s harder to fake such a test, or for an ISP to “whitelist” it effectively. Make sure they are HTML5 Internet speed tests as well, for more accurate results and without the security problems associated with Flash-based tests.

The DSLReports test also checks for bufferbloat, something usual tests tends to ignore. What is bufferbloat? To quote their FAQ:

The test continually checks latency from start to finish (not just at the beginning, like most other speed tests). If the latency rises dramatically during the download or upload section, it indicates your connection has become less responsive when fully loaded. This is bufferbloat. Bufferbloat is undesirable latency caused by routers and cable/DSL modems buffering more data than necessary.

On a final note, remember to test your connection at various times during the day. It could be that the “throttling” you experience is just the usual traffic spikes. An understandable situation, considering how many people are stuck at home right now.

The Case Against Traditional Speed Tests

Testing your Internet connection using the methods described above is perfectly fine for the average user. But if you want to go one step further and fully confirm that your ISP is tricking you with regards to throttling, then you need better than a simple testing tool.

Here are a few more reasons why you should do it:

  • The servers used to test your connection are close to your location. In more technical terms, there are fewer “hops” made between you and the speed test server vs. you and the sites you’re connecting to daily. It is another reason why you can get fast results from the speed test tool while your streaming speeds are slow.
  • Speed test sites have a single purpose – namely, to verify your download/upload speed under optimal conditions. This isn’t a clear reflection of a more complex network environment, and not even for something as simple as watching Netflix, for example.
  • Many people incorrectly test their speed over Wi-Fi. According to speedtest.net:

Devices (phones, tablets, PCs, etc.) can have very different Wi-Fi and cellular radio capabilities. This means you might get one Speedtest result on one device and a different result on another, even using the same provider. Some devices may not be able to measure the full speed of your internet service. It’s also possible that your Wi-Fi router doesn’t support the full speed of your service.”

This is why it’s recommended to use a wired connection to test the full capability of your service.

A Note to Wi-Fi Users

If you experience Wi-Fi “throttling,” note that your network slowdown could simply be caused by Wi-Fi signal interference. And not the kind caused by bad weather or poor Wi-Fi router placement (more info here). This often causes people to blame their ISP for bandwidth throttling when it’s not actually the case.

A bit of context: standard 2.4 GHz routers offer 14 data transmission channels that overlap. Nobody bothers to change this channel, so in a neighborhood with a lot of other Wi-Fi users – and especially in apartment buildings – network congestion is bound to happen.

Getting better Wi-Fi speeds is simply a case of switching the channel on your router. Usually, that means channels 1, 6, or 11 – but you’ll need to use some free tools to find out which channel is less used in your area. Read more about how to find the best Wi-Fi channel for your router, along with some recommendations of free tools by clicking here.

Alternatively, you could switch to a better Wi-Fi router that offers support for the less-congested 5 GHz band, with 23 non-overlapping channels.

Going Advanced – More Accurate Speed Test Results

Services will often ask users to run tests called Traceroute and PathPing to diagnose connectivity or latency issues. They’re especially useful to troubleshoot problems with online gaming and poor video call quality, among other things. Here’s how they work.

Traceroute

As mentioned before, the fewer “hops” made between your device and the speed testing server can skew the test results. When you visit a website or use an online service, the network signal is routed through several different devices and networks before reaching its destination. It “hops” between routers, essentially.

Traceroute shows you a list of these computers and networks on the way to the website of your choice – let’s say that is YouTube.com. Additionally, it shows you the ping between each hop, meaning the time (in milliseconds) it takes for a device on the “route” to respond to your request.

This lets you see if your ISP is tricking you into paying more for poor service, or if there are just network issues on the way to YouTube.

PathPing

Although PathPing tests the ping between each hop along the route over a timeframe, it is quite similar to Traceroute. In contrast, Traceroute only does it once per jump, but it is much faster as a result. PathPing takes about 25 seconds per hop to show you the results of the test.

The best part about both of these tests is that you don’t need extra software to run them. They’re both run from the Command Prompt in Windows (or Terminal on Mac):

The guides above include both Windows and Mac methods. You’ll also learn how to export the test results to a text file for later reference. These results can also be shown to a network specialist (such as from your ISP) to troubleshoot connection problems.

The Bottom Line

No matter which testing method you go for, you should always remember that using a VPN lets you skip the hassle and avoid selective throttling altogether. What a VPN does not do is help you stop throttling caused by data caps.

For example, let’s say your contract allows you 500 GB of data a month. When you’ve reached that cap, your Internet provider throttles all types of traffic on your network. Unfortunately, a VPN won’t help you get around that. That’s about it.

Now, do you believe your ISP is cheating when it comes to speed test results? Let us know your experience in the comments. We’d like to hear what people are dealing with, and hopefully, find a way to keep ISPs honest in the future.

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