At this point in the coronavirus crisis, many of us rely more than ever on platforms streaming like Netflix and Amazon Prime, making it even more irritating when a show stutters and stops right at the climax thanks to a lousy Wi-Fi connection. With so many people working and studying from home, networks are overloaded and the options offered by Internet service providers are too limited to solve the problem.
What’s worse, with last year’s Supreme Court decision to refuse to hear an appeal about the net neutralityInternet service providers (ISPs) can still throttle your Internet, limit your broadband if you’re doing more streaming on YouTube or Hulu of what they want, and provide slower connections to websites owned by their competitors. But, there is a solution for some of these problems: the virtual private network (VPN). Basically ISPs need to see your IP address to slow down your Internet, and a good VPN will protect that identity. Here we show you how to find one and use it to check if your ISP is artificially slowing down your Internet.
Run the usual troubleshooting methods
Your Wi-Fi is slow and you think your service provider is limiting your connection. Before reaching these conclusions, it is important to review the usual troubleshooting list: keep your router Centrally located in your home, reposition their antennas well, check the security of your network, etc.
Test the health of your Internet
Screenshot by David Priest / CNET
Once you have made sure that there are no simple explanations for your Wi-Fi problems, you can get a deeper measure of the health of your Internet in different ways. I suggest starting with a simple test through M-Lab. This will verify the speed of your connection, essentially measuring whether your ISP is providing consistent performance regardless of the content you are accessing. This measure is not perfect, but it is a good starting point.
Find a reliable VPN
If you’ve done a basic first test of the state of the Internet and still think something might be wrong with your ISP, start researching VPNs. There are dozens of reasons to get one, and the same number of factors to consider when looking for the best virtual private network, such as security, price, and server location. Fortunately, we’ve already done that work for you. See our suggestions here. The best VPNs of 2020.
Compare your speed with the VPN
Screenshot by David Priest / CNET
Then test your internet speed somewhere like Fast.com or Speedtest.net. Compare the results with the same test when your VPN is active. Using any VPN should slow you down considerably, so speed tests should show a discrepancy, with VPN active speed noticeably slower than 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 acceleration.
Fix your Internet
Screenshot by David Priest/CNET
OK, this is the difficult part. Even if you find out that your provider is limiting your Internet, there may not be much you can really do. Many people in the United States live in regions with ISP monopolies or duopolies, so you may not be able to find a better provider. But here are some useful answers:
- If you do have options, use the best provider in your area. Measurement Lab provides a good resource for finding information 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 the strangulation of unscrupulous ISPs.
- Call your provider and threaten to change providers if they don’t strangle your Internet. This may seem dated, and I can’t guarantee lasting results, but vendors have responded positively to those tactics when I’ve used them.
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