You’re kicking back after a long day, enjoying a few great Netflix shows when suddenly, the unthinkable happens: your HD quality stream suddenly gets ridiculously grainy. What’s the deal? There are some possibilities, one of which includes ISP Netflix throttling. Your ISP may be seeing that you’re connected to Netflix and limiting the amount of data you can stream through the site. Yes, this is unfair. Yes, it’s frustrating. But you’re not helpless in this situation. You can stop Netflix throttling using a few different, easy methods.
How to Stop Netflix Throttling with a VPN
Given that content filtering is the primary method that your ISP uses to determine what’s actually happening with your traffic when you connect to a VPN, your ISP can’t easily determine what kind of data it’s dealing with.
StrongVPN Stops Netflix Throttling
Many different VPN programs can provide the kind of encryption and anonymization you need to prevent ISP Netflix throttling. However, StrongVPN utilizes a core set of features that make it uniquely suited to bypassing the tools ISPs use to throttle data.
Additionally, when connected to StrongVPN, I see no difference in the quality of my Netflix streams. Given I’m trying to avoid throttling, having my speed decrease while using a VPN would essentially result in the same effect as throttling. StrongVPN maintains fast servers that prevent the type of speed decrease you might see with lower quality VPNs.
With StrongVPN, users benefit from:
- Fast servers. StrongVPN maintains some of the fastest speeds among other VPN services. Speed drop-off is normal, but minimal with StrongVPN.
- High-level encryption. It’s important to ensure your ISP can’t see where your data is going to and coming from. StrongVPN has military-grade encryption that prevents your ISP from snooping and throttling.
- Shared IP addresses. Anonymity is a key factor in avoiding having issues with your ISP. By using shared IP addresses, your ISP can’t determine who you are.
- Obfuscation. Obfuscation is an important VPN tool that makes it so your ISP can’t tell you’re connected to a VPN service.
StrongVPN is one of the only VPN services that can get past Netflix geo-blocking. Netflix has been blocking VPN services for over a year now, primarily due to users trying to connect to different regions in order to access geographically-locked content.
Some of the most popular services, such as IPVanish and Private Internet Access (PIA), get easily blocked by Netflix. StrongVPN gets past the Netflix VPN block, making it more useful for those trying to avoid ISP throttling.
How Do VPNs Bypass Netflix Throttling?
When you use a VPN service to stream your video data, your ISP cannot determine what type of data is passing through the network.
VPN services create a private tunnel between your computer and a server accessing internet services somewhere else. While your ISP can see that you’re connected to the remote server, it cannot see what kind of activity you’re actually engaging in.
Importantly, your connection to the VPN server is encrypted. VPN services are designed to prevent anyone from spying on your network activity, which includes your ISP. Although your ISP can determine data is being consumed, it cannot see what you’re actually accessing. This is particularly important when it comes to preventing Netflix throttling.
Data on the internet can come through on different types of ports. Most online video streaming services utilize specific ports for streaming, which your ISP can recognize and throttle. With this, ISPs can easily see that you’re connected to Netflix and throttle any data coming through to the site.
However, connecting to VPN services makes it near impossible for your ISP to tell which port you’re using, or even that you’re connected to Netflix servers at all. By blocking your ISP from seeing any Netflix connections, you’re effectively stopping your ISP from utilizing its key data throttling method.
In recent years, Netflix has been very vocal about trying to keep ISPs from throttling its customers. Using a VPN to access Netflix would actually be beneficial for its customers, given that it prevents ISPs from throttling Netflix’s customers. On the other hand, Netflix is also actively blocking geo-hoppers who attempt to access content outside of their native region via VPNs. This puts Netflix in a tight position when it comes to its stance on VPN use.
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Avoid Free VPNs for Netflix Throttling
VPN services are growing in popularity, with a number of them are offering services for free. However, these services often have congested servers, bandwidth caps, and ads-built into the VPN.
When using any VPN service, you will experience a slight reduction in internet speed as you’re running your connection through an additional server. When opting for a VPN, you’ll want to look for one that offers no-logs policies, unlimited bandwidth, a large number of servers, and shared IP addresses. Free VPN servers will often be lacking in many of these aspects.
Is My ISP Throttling Netflix? How to Test for Netflix Throttling
ISPs that do throttle Netflix are fairly secretive about doing it. Especially in the US, the practice is currently illegal thanks to Net Neutrality laws in place that disallow ISPs from discriminating against different types of data when making those types of decisions.
However, if you find that your Netflix streams only ever come in at lower quality, you can use a few different services to check your internet traffic activity.
Recognizing that ISPs are attempting to throttle its customers, Netflix put out its own speed test tool. Fast.com tests your connection to the Netflix servers to determine whether you’re being throttled. Given that Fast.com was developed by Netflix specifically to combat ISP throttling, this test may be your best bet when it comes to identifying whether you’re being throttled or not.
When I ran this test, I got the following result:
This was an incredibly slow speed, especially when compared to the other two tests below. Am I being throttled by my ISP? There’s a distinct possibility. I can’t know for sure without more advanced network analysis tools, but as a consumer, this seems a bit suspicious.
Some ISPs throttle data during peak hours to ease network congestion, for example, while others do it at any point in the day. It is harder to detect throttling during congestion periods, however, which is why many users tend to prefer a VPN in general.
One way to test your internet speed and determine if you’re being throttled is by using Speedtest.net. Speedtest.net measures your upload and download times to help identify if you’re getting the speeds you’re actually paying for. You may also be able to get a hint of throttling using Speedtest, although the results may not be entirely clear.
However, it’s important to note that Speedtest.net may have reliability issues. Certain ISPs will make an exception for Speedtest.net when throttling, so that your test results appear fine when they really aren’t.
When I ran a Speedtest.net test on my own network, I had fairly acceptable results for my ISP:
Just looking at Speedtest.net doesn’t appear to indicate any throttling, given that the speed given is what I normally receive, even as I was running Netflix.
The Internet Health Test
The Internet Health Test from Battle For The Net is a more comprehensive bandwidth analysis. It takes a similar, but different approach than that of Speedtest.net. The Internet Health Test utilizes Google’s M-lab code, which takes a more holistic and technical approach to analyzing network speed. You can read more about that here.
To run the test, simply hit “Start.” The test will then take several steps to analyze your network capacity.
After the test is completed, you’ll see how your speeds look running through several different access points. If everything looks consistent across all testing areas, you’re likely not being throttled. As you can see with my test, mostly everything looks consistent, although my test through “Tata” looks a bit on the high end.
Based on my results from both The Internet Health Test and Speedtest.net, I would be led to believe that I’m not experiencing Netflix throttling. However, this does not mean my ISP doesn’t engage in throttling, or wouldn’t in the future. The Internet Health Test is a better analysis than Speedtest.net, but not perfect.
Netflix Throttling Isn’t New, But It Is Growing
Netflix throttling is a growing problem as well. As reported by The Verge in 2014, Level 3, a communications company that connects major ISPs to the larger World Wide Web, accused 6 majors ISPs in the US and Europe of purposefully throttling video data. While Level 3 did not reveal the names of those ISPs (for obvious business reasons), the company’s representative, Mark Taylor, explained, “They are deliberately harming the service they deliver to their paying customers…[t]hey are not allowing us to fulfill the requests their customers make for content.”
Considering Taylor also noted that “large broadband consumer networks with a dominant or exclusive market share in their local market,” it only takes a minute to consider which US and UK companies might be throttling video data.
In the US, the five largest ISPs include:
- Comcast (over 25 million customers)
- Charter (over 23 million customers)
- AT&T (over 15 million customers)
- Verizon (over 7 million customers)
- CenturyLink (just under 6 million customers)
In the UK, the five largest ISPs include:
- BT (over 9 million customers)
- Sky Broadband (over 6 million customers)
- Virgin Media (just under 5 million customers)
- TalkTalk (just under 4 million customers)
- Vodafone UK (245,000 customers)
For those in the US and the UK, it’s not hard to imagine which, if not all, of these ISPs, are engaging in Netflix throttling. Indeed, while Level 3 only mentioned 6 ISPs specifically, this does not preclude other ISPs who may not be utilizing Level 3 to service customers with int access.
This does not include wireless data providers, such as T-mobile, which the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) accused in 2016 of throttling video streaming for customers who were actually paying for the company’s unlimited video plan, Binge On. It might seem hypocritical for a company like T-Mobile to offer a data plan specifically designed around unlimited video streaming, and then turn around and throttle that data.
Why Is Netflix Being Throttled?
According to Netflix, you may indeed be using quite a bit of data when you’re streaming video through their website. Even if you set your video quality on “Medium,” which is standard definition, you’ll be using 0.7 gigabytes an hour. For high-definition video, you’ll be chewing through 3 gigabytes per hour, while the Netflix Ultra High Definition quality videos eat up a rather hefty 7 gigabytes per hour. Considering some of us (this writer included) grew up with a 14.4k modem, even 0.7 gigs an hour for video seems ludicrously high.
This is possibly also the thinking of ISPs, such as Verizon, when they decide to start throttling data. Particularly in the United States, ISPs have been a bit slow to update their data networks to meet these higher demands for data. Upgrading networks is expensive, and many ISPs seemingly follow a business practice designed to provide the least amount of data they can give to customers for the highest price possible.
So when Verizon starts throttling its customers’ Netflix data streams, calling it “video optimization,” we can pretty much be sure that is likely just the code word for “you’re costing us money.”
Data Caps and Netflix Throttling Are Not The Same
The alternative is for ISPs to simply impose data caps. Rural customers in the US and most mobile data users are certainly familiar with this practice. Data caps limit how much data a customer can use before the ISP significantly reduces your bandwidth.
It’s important to understand that these two practices are not the same. Where data caps apply a blanket throttle on your data speeds after you’ve used up a predetermined amount of data, Netflix throttling usually involves services that offer no data caps. Generally speaking, you can’t really avoid data caps using spoofing methods. If Netflix has slowed down or becomes impossible to stream because of data cap throttling, there’s little you can do about it beyond purchasing a plan with more data or finding ways to reduce the amount of data you use.
Considering how much data even the lower-quality Netflix streams use, those with somewhat low data caps will quickly find themselves getting throttled. Unfortunately, there’s nothing a VPN can do to help you avoid this situation. While a VPN will mask what type of data is passing through the network, it can’t hide the fact that you’re using bandwidth.
If you’re dealing with Netflix throttling due to data caps, beware of any claims that a VPN will help you avoid throttling. VPNs cannot spoof how much data you’re using.
High Network Traffic Can Look Like Throttling
It’s also important to avoid confusing network congestion with Netflix throttling. If you’re finding that your Netflix streams appear to be slower only during certain times of the day, there is certainly a chance that your ISP is throttling your video streams to help ease congestion.
However, you may also simply be encountering slower speeds due to all of the congestion, which can slow down speeds for everyone using the network. If you’re getting slow speeds primarily during times when most users are on the network (what is known as Internet Rush Hour), there is a chance you are not getting throttled. Nevertheless, if your ISP does throttle data, Internet Rush Hour is the time when they’re more likely to do it.
Sam Cook is a full-time content strategist by day, a part-time freelance content writer since 2015. In another life, he was a high school English teacher for nearly a decade. Based in sunny New Orleans, he writes long-form educational content on technology, including Insurtech, Fintech, HRtech, and content streaming. He loves whittling down complex ideas within these areas that make decisions easier for buyers. When he’s not reading books with his son Miles and playing video games with the family, you can find him immersed in his growing collection of Euro-style board games.