If you've noticed that your streaming media feeds seem a bit slower lately, you are not alone. Others have noticed that online videos suddenly seem to be buffering more often and arriving on devices looking a little blurry. Maybe websites appear to be taking longer to load. If so, it could be because your Internet service provider (ISP) is throttling traffic.
It's not necessarily in your head, in other words. This was one of the fears that net neutrality advocates warned about when the Federal Communications Commission, led by chairman Ajit Pai, was determined to strip away regulations implemented under the previous administration when Tom Wheeler headed up the FCC.
"Nearly every US cell provider is doing throttling," says Dave Choffnes, assistant professor of computer and information science at Northeastern University.
Choffnes worked with a team from the University of Massachusetts Amherst to analyze data collected from Wehe, an app he and two Northwestern students developed to track net neutrality violations. Apple original blocked the app from its App Store, but later allowed it through following an uptick of usage resulting from extensive media coverage.
The team used a peer-reviewed technique to conduct more than half a million data traffic tests across 161 countries. Choffnes said his team found that ISPs are "giving a fixed amount of bandwidth—typically something in the range of one and a half megabits per second to four megabits per second—to video traffic, but they don’t impose these limits on other network traffic."
Here's a look at some of the results, with the lower the rate, the more the app is being throttled:
Source: Northwestern University via Lia Petronio
YouTube appears to be the biggest target of throttling, followed by Netflix and Amazon. ISPs have targeted other services as well, though, and not just at times of peak traffic.
"There’s no evidence that any of these policies are only happening during network overload," said Choffnes. "They’re throttling video traffic even when the network doesn’t need to. It happens 24/7, and in every region where we have tests."
One way around this is to use a VPN, which routes traffic through servers that are further away and potentially not being throttled. There's typically a trade off in general speed, but it's something to try if this is affecting you.