You know what grinds my gears? ISP throttling. That’s what. Ever wonder why it is that your Youtube videos lag and buffer every few seconds in 720p or 1080p mode even though you know with an absolute certainty that your bandwidth is not the problem? OK, so that issue might not happen 24/7 but did you ever wonder why it only happened during certain times of the day? My friends, welcome to ISP throttling. This is the act of your internet service provider (ISP) purposefully slowing down customer’s bandwidth to certain services. Why would they do this you ask? There’s actually a range of reasons but one of the most common one’s is due to the amount of bandwidth they have to push out. When you visit sites such as Facebook or Amazon, these “services” don’t really generate a lot of bandwidth per customer. Most of the bandwidth required is for loading images. These your ISP can handle with ease. It’s services such as streaming videos that is often the cause of ISP throttling. I’m sure you’ve noticed that on Youtube, you can watch videos in a low resolution such as 360p perfectly fine. This is because the bandwidth required to stream that video is usually low. You’ll notice hardly any buffers or “pauses”. However, we are in a digital age now where watching videos in such a low resolution is not quite the norm. To watch videos in their HD glory, we need to crank up the resolution to at least 720p. For a true HD experience, we crank it all the way up to 1080p. These however is where the problem starts for many of us.
I live in Hawaii and have been a customer of Time Warner’s Oceanic Cable for over 10+ years now. I rely on them to provide high speed Internet, or at least as high speed as it can get here on the islands. Just recently however, I’ve noticed that live video streams on Twitch.tv has been severely crippled. Twitch.tv is one of the largest video game streaming community on the Internet. I rarely play video games anymore but for some reason, I still like to watch others play the latest games and especially when there are tournaments going on. I’ve never, ever had a problem with Twitch until just about a month ago. I’ve always been able to stream their videos at high definition without any hiccups. A simple search though showed that I am not alone. In fact, other Time Warner Cable customers have showed similar slow downs when streaming in HD on Twitch. The problem got so bad that streaming anything other than 360p would give me a consistent “pause and resume” effect every 3-4 seconds. The network cannot keep up with the actual demands of the video stream and that is why there are pauses. In other words, the video is playing at a faster rate than what my bandwidth can handle. Many users who’ve experienced this are smart enough sometimes to just pause the video, let the buffer fill up and then resume. This is what many Youtube users have to deal with on a regular basis, especially when wanting to watch in 720p or higher. However, this “pause video” solution is not applicable to live video streams!
Below is a video in which I captured my experience when trying to watch a HD stream on Twitch during hours where my ISP throttled my connection to the site (I can only assume this is the case):
Below here is a video I captured moments after capturing the above video. This time however, I am connected to my VPN provider:
As you can easily see, watching Twitch streams in HD during busy hours resulted in a less than stellar experience. For live streams such as these, it is completely unacceptable to have the video pause every few seconds.You know what’s so damn funny? The slow downs on Twitch.tv only happens when I’m streaming on my PC. If I use the Twitch Android app to wirelessly stream the videos (using my home Internet connection, not data), I can watch the streams in HD perfectly fine without experiencing any buffers! Streaming to the same channel at the same HD resolution on my PC immediately gives me problems. I’m using the same DNS servers on both devices and so the only conclusion I can come up with is that data is being routed differently when on the Twitch Android app then when on a PC. Because they are routed differently, my ISP probably isn’t throttling traffic to those destinations. I really have no other idea on why this would happen. Users using the Twitch iPad app also claims that the same happens to them. I cannot guarantee that a VPN will solve all your throttling issues, if that is indeed happening in the background as your ISP knows exactly what they are and what they do. VPN’s have been around for ages and is nothing new. Therefore, this is not some dark secret shared between us!
What Can We Do About This?
Employing a VPN to battle ISP throttling is a pretty drastic solution but there are numerous of other advantages to using a VPN. In fact, in this day and age where our digital identity is just as important in safe guarding as our true in-life identity, using a VPN is a good security measure against hackers and eavesdroppers from snooping on our data. However, VPN’s have much more value such as:
- Providing Public Security – If you frequently use public hotspots in places such as Starbucks or McDonald’s to get free Internet access, then you should be aware that users who are connected to the same hotspot as you can easily snoop your data! That friendly looking gentleman sitting across from you eating his Big Mac is actually capturing traffic for later analysis from other users who are accessing the Internet via that free hotspot! With a VPN, you eliminate this scenario because once you establish a connection to your VPN provider, all of your traffic is routed inside that encrypted tunnel. While that gentleman is still able to capture your traffic, he/she will have a much more difficult time making sense of that data.
- Remaining Anonymous – If you wish to conduct some Internet business where anonymity is required, then a VPN is just the thing for you. When you connect to a VPN, websites you visit actually see the IP address of the VPN server instead of your own IP address.
- Accessing Restricted Content – If you want to access a service where it requires you to be in a certain geographical location, VPN can come to the rescue. For example, if a user located within the United States wants to watch videos on the BBC website, they are blocked from doing so because BBC strictly only allows users connecting from within the United Kingdom to view those videos. If your VPN provider actually has a server located within the UK, you actually can bypass that restriction and watch those videos even if you are not physically residing in the UK.
- Bypassing Download Limitations – Many online download sites place a limitation on how many downloads are provided to free users. For example, it may limit you to a single download per hour. With a VPN, you may be able to access another “download slot” because you are essentially connecting via a different computer.
- Bypassing Censorship and Restrictions – Last but not least, VPN allows you to bypass governmental censorship and ISP monitoring. If your country disallows visiting certain social websites, a VPN might be just the thing to bypass this restriction. If you are afraid that your government is monitoring your connection and online activities, a secure VPN tunnel actually helps prevent that monitoring to a certain degree.
So What’s Not to Like About a VPN?
A VPN does sound very interesting so what are some side effects?
Yet Another Monthly Fee
As with all things, accessing some sort of secured and reliable VPN server is not free. In almost all cases, you’ll have to pay either a fee every month or an annual fee at a discount. Depending on the extras, additional charges may apply. Keep this mind as this is yet another fee on top of what you pay every month to your ISP. If you don’t require the extra security or other benefits of a VPN but just so that you can stream your videos in HD, a VPN service may be hard to justify as you already know that you have the bandwidth available. It’s just that your ISP wants to play a dirty game and you as a customer have to find ways around it.
Your ISP is Still Very Smart
A VPN is not a silver bullet. While using a VPN does indeed hide traffic from your ISP, that encrypted traffic still has to pass through your ISP! Your ISP is what allows you to connect to the actual Internet, not your VPN provider. Therefore in a VPN scenario, your ISP is like a middleman which helps you connect to your VPN provider. In this case however, the “middleman” cannot see what is going on between the two parties but serves as just a “bridge” for the two parties to communicate with each other. While your data is protected, that “data” still has to move through the ISP. Downloading a 10GB file while you are connected to a VPN server still means that your ISP has to “move” 10GB of data for you. Some users like to purchase anonymous VPN services to download torrents. This is fine if your ISP throttles torrent traffic but if you suddenly have a huge spike in bandwidth generated each day, it will definitely raise a red flag and might even cause further investigations. Also, just because your ISP can’t throttle services such as Youtube anymore due to a VPN, they can still throttle your bandwidth overall. The keyword here is overall. This includes the encrypted traffic to and from your VPN server. However, I’m sure you’d have to generate a massive amount of traffic for this to happen.
Not All VPN Providers are the Same
If you are seriously considering in deploying a VPN for security reasons, then you must put extra effort in researching your VPN provider. There are obviously a lot of choose from but you really have to be careful and not just look at the pricing. For example, if you are serious about security and privacy, you should spend some time going over their terms of service especially on the part of data retention and collection. While a VPN allows you to remain anonymous on the Internet, your VPN provider is still required to collect some sort of data about you such as the time and date you’ve logged on and such. Each VPN provider differs in this area and so you must do your own research. For most reputable VPN providers, they usually state that they will not hesitate to provide information about you to law enforcement should you conduct illegal activities while connected to their servers such as acts of terrorism, child pornography, hacking into other systesm, etc. If however you wish to just use their service to bypass ISP throttling restrictions, then obviously you don’t need to pay too much attention whereas security and privacy is concerned.
Your Government is Still Very Smart
If you live in a country where the government controls everything, you must use a VPN service at your own risk to bypass limitations and restrictions imposed by your ISP. In some countries, I’m sure the ISP is just another part of the government and so if you break the rules of the ISP, you are in effect breaking the laws of the government itself. As mentioned earlier, just because you are able to “hide” your traffic from prying eyes does not hide the fact that you are trying to hide something in the first place! Basically, using a VPN in this situation causes suspicions and it’s up to you whether or not the risks are worth it.
In the End…
Traffic throttling/shaping or whatever else you want to call it is a constant headache for many users. While there are legitimate reasons for why an ISP would want to throttle traffic to certain services, it all boils down to what will happen in the future. We rely much on our Internet services today and so can you imagine the landscape years from now? What happens when our ISP decides to throttle our services to Youtube or Netflix but tells the customers hey, for an extra $9.99 per month, we’ll make sure you’ll get the best user experience possible?! Users who don’t pay that “extra fee” will definitely have their traffic throttle while users who do pay are the only one’s allowed to stream in HD? This is sort of what net neutrality is about and I highly urge you to read up on it if you’re interested.
Personally though, this issue with Twitch just recently popped up. For the most part, my experience with Time Warner Cable has been pretty spectacular ever since I’ve been with them. Outages are infrequent and speeds are not bad for what we get on the islands. The sad news is even if I wanted to change ISP, there’s hardly any choices in Hawaii. For now, a VPN service is all that is needed to bypass their throttling restrictions on Youtube and Twitch. Also, there are times where the throttling happens at the service level and not ISP level. Google themselves actually do pose limitations and restrictions on bandwidth. So as you can see, a VPN is not the end all of solutions. The very good news is that for many VPN services, you can try them out for a couple of days to see if it helps with your situation or not. If not, simply cancel your account and try another.At the moment, I am personally using a VPN service provided by SunVPN. Their service and speed is pretty awesome. They were generous enough to provide me a free full year of service in exchange for doing a review, which I wrote here in this article. Their price is around the norm of $9.99 per month and they have an awesome 30-day trial period. Another popular service provider is from StrongVPN. Their basic package is just $7 per month with an offer to purchase a full year of service for just $55.