Since the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in countries around the world have been struggling to cope with much higher than usual bandwidth demands.
This has at times resulted in bandwidth throttling, where ISPs intentionally slow down your speeds. This helps them better manage their capacities and ensure that everyone gets a share of the Internet pipeline.
Unfortunately, because COVID-19 has forced much of the workforce to work from home, dealing with an Internet crawling at snail’s pace isn’t exactly conducive to work.
Under normal circumstances, broadband providers are able to balance loads since they’ve been configured to expect staggered activity times split between home use and office use. COVID-19 has forced much of the global workforce to work from home, creating an anomaly.
Because of this, they have resorted to bandwidth throttling to help their operations. Let’s take a look at how bandwidth throttling may be affecting the speeds you’re getting at home right now.
First, as a baseline gauge, my ISP-advertised bandwidth is 500Mbps both up and down. If I were to browse websites hosted domestically, speeds are normally quite high;
Now let’s consider if I were to connect to a server in France under normal circumstances;
The degradation in speed you observe above is normal, since France is quite a long distance from where I am. As distances increase between two points, Internet speeds will degrade slightly, along with increased latency (ping).
However, if for some reason the bandwidth were to be throttled somewhere along the connection, then I would possibly be looking at results like this:
If you were trying to access a website at these speeds, I am sure it would be extremely frustrating. Under normal circumstances, we’d probably just leave things be and come back later. But if you were trying to get some work done – perhaps a teleconference or downloading an important file, things can get touchy.
For those of you unfamiliar, Virtual Private Networks (VPN) are tools that can help you with a few things – primarily increasing your privacy & security on the Internet. They do however have a few other side benefits such as helping bypass bandwidth throttling.
To illustrate this, I ran a few VPNs during the period when I noted my bandwidth being throttled as above. Here are the results:
As you can see, using a VPN clearly helped me skip over the bandwidth restrictions. It worked with each of these major VPN service providers which I tested at the time. While not exactly the same speeds as I normally get, it is still much improved over the 2.5 Mbps observed without a VPN active.
The reason for this is ISPs normally throttle bandwidth selectively. Think of bandwidth as a highway where there are various lanes for traffic. On the Internet highway, there are generally two lanes – fast and slow. Based on their sorting methods, ISPs generally can put your traffic into either of these lanes.
VPNs work by creating communications tunnels from your device directly to their servers. Any data you send along these tunnels is also highly encrypted. Because of these things, ISPs will not know what kind of data you are sending and receiving.
Bear in mind though that it won’t always work this way.
As you can see, if an ISP can’t tell what kind of data it is working with, sorting normally puts you in the fast lane. However, there are caveats to this when even a VPN won’t work. For example, some ISPs impose data caps on users. In these circumstances, your bandwidth will be throttled no matter what.
To the uninitiated, using a VPN may sound a bit daunting. Let me assure you that it is as simple as most other applications to use. The steps are fairly straightfoward;
Once you’ve done that, just use the Internet as you usually would and leave the VPN to run on its own in the background. For the most part it won’t interfere with the way you normally use the Internet at all.
Even under normal circumstances, ISPs make use of bandwidth throttling to control who gets what share of the Internet pipeline. Unfortunately, this can affect us when we least expect it.
You’re using your Internet line and everything seems fine, then suddenly, sites are struggling to open and downloads slow to a crawl. Chances are that your ISP has throttled your speed. They do this for various reasons.
For example, some ISPs discourage users from P2P file sharing activities and will throttle the speeds of those who try to run torrents.
In other cases, heavy Internet traffic in your area may have caused your ISP to throttle bandwidth selectively in order to balance loads. Of course, there may be other reasons as well, but overall, bandwidth throttling is mainly at the ISP’s discretion.
Some of the reasons bandwidth is throttled can include;
Yet thanks to COVID-19, it looks likely that at least some part of the workforce will undergo changes in future, even when the immediate crisis is over.
Companies (and employees) are beginning to realise that working from home is not only practical, but can have many positive implications as well such as the decline in carbon dioxide levels around the world.
Even if ISPs work full out, it may take them some time to normalize their operations, especially given the unknowns involved in the numbers who will remain working from home or returning to office environments.
As such, it is likely we will see them leverage on bandwidth throttling for some time more to come. I highly recommend that many of you who need to work remotely make use of a VPN and work around bandwidth restrictions so that you can work in peace of mind from anywhere you choose.