Every year, more and more Americans subscribe to high-speed internet access from their cable and telecommunications providers. Our individual bandwidth consumption needs grow every year as people turn to the internet for work, school, and entertainment. BitTorrent downloads, Voice-Over-IP (VoIP) telephony, streaming video, and multimedia downloads contribute to an exponential growth in bandwidth usage.

While the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have gone out of their way to increase subscribership, they have done a poor job of providing additional network infrastructure and bandwidth to their clients. In environments where bandwidth is shared, like a cable internet network, a very small pool of users are consuming a disproportionate amount of bandwidth. This results in slow connection speeds for the entire community during peak usage times. The ISPs are starting to take steps to minimize the connectivity degradation, but their methods are not in the best interest of the consumer.

Traffic Shaping

High Speed Internet on Commercial - Roland in Vancouver 2053
Creative Commons License photo credit: roland

There has been a lot of news coverage pertaining to the bandwidth issue in the media lately, because ISPs have started to step in and manipulate network traffic. Several ISPs, including Comcast, have employed traffic shaping techniques that reprioritize how quickly your data can move through their network. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took action against Comcast for throttling BitTorrent data specifically, but failing to single out any other kind of data. If Comcast had not singled out BitTorrent data and just massaged the priority of all kinds of data traffic through their network, itis highly unlikely that the FCC would have intervened. It is good that the FCC is preventing ISPs from blocking specific kinds of data, but the door is still wide open for the ISPs to make it more difficult and more expensive for their subscribers to use the internet.

Throttling Data to Their Advantage
The ISPs do not have the best interests of the consumers in mind. There is no transparency, and the vast majority of customers who are affected do not know that their data is being manipulated or re-prioritized. If the ISPs continue to manipulate data traffic, how will we know if they are manipulating traffic to favor their own services? Since a lot of ISPs also provide their own VoIP phone services, what’s stopping them from manipulating data traffic from other VoIP services like Vonage, which run over existing broadband services? What’s stopping the ISPs from manipulating data transfers from Amazon Video, Netflix’s streaming video service, or the iTunes Store, since all three of them offer video downloads that compete with cable programming? Since the ISPs are not disclosing their network management plans, there is no way to be perfectly sure that your ISP is not taking advantage of you.

Speed Tests Can be Inaccurate
There are a multitude of bandwidth tests available on the web. The vast majority of those tests are only interested in how fast it takes generic packets to travel to and from your computer or home network. If you do not choose speed tests that test the speed of different types of data transfers, you may have an incomplete or inaccurate picture of how fast your connection truly is. Google joined with a few other organizations to form the Measurement Lab (M-Lab), which was created to study broadband networks. M-Lab provides several bandwidth tests that also look for evidence that your ISP is throttling specific kinds of network traffic, namely BitTorrent. These tools are all free to use, and they come with a lot of documentation, so you will be able to understand the results. If you use these tests, and you do find out that your ISP is throttling specific kinds of network traffic, it may be worth your time to call your ISP and inquire about it or voice your displeasure. If more customers express their concerns to the ISPs and the FCC, the ISPs may have to reconsider their current strategies.


  1. John Gruhler

    If a person was to run the M-lab tests and discover a restriction on a particular data type such as Amazon Video or Netflix, then customer satisfaction is not the issue. This is actually a crime. Now I can see the question mark on your face! This is why it’s a crime.
    If you live in say… South Dakota, and you pay for streaming service from Netflix, then you are involved in “Interstate Commerce”. Netflix corp. is located in a different state than your point of purchase. (South Dakota) If your ISP restricts the Netflix stream then they are interfering with Interstate Commerce and that is a Federal Crime!!
    So before you go thinking there is nothing you can do, make sure you get all the facts. Now you can call your ISP and simply inform them, if they continue to interfere with your Netflix stream they will find themselves answering a Federal Warrant.

  2. anne mcclaran

    have been looking into the possibility that ATT is manipulating my download speeds. i have had an ATT aircard for internet access since april ’12. always have had 4-5 bars, with no timeouts or download issues. since april ’13, have been getting constant timeouts. (still have 4-5 bars) have been around the block with att tech support for 2 months, with no solution. have replaced aircard 3 times, sim card replaced, etc. etc. – if i go to a WIFI hotspot, i have no Timeouts. since ATT offers 5 different plans with 5 different download speeds they obviously have the capability to manipulate this. the question is are they? trying to spread the butter too thin, or wanting existing customers to upgrade to new equipment? pricier plan? i have contacted VT public service board re this, but they say they do not regulate wireless carriers. would love to be able to prove that ATT is intentionally manipulating existing customers’ download speeds. of course, i am locked into a 2 year contract, and also, have no options other than ATT. i am stuck. and angry.

  3. ComcastIsLyingBunchOfAholes

    Comcast loves to point to speedtest.net as proving their high bandwidth availability. But Speedtest uses small packets of data on a nearby server to provide good results using their Boost technology. When using another test, such as ShaperProbe, which uses much larger downloads on a non-comcast server, the results are much different.

    I refused to pay my bill and when I was sent to collections, I simply provided a months worth of ShaperProbe results and claimed that Comcast broke our service contract by failing to provide the 20mpbs that I purchased every month. Case dropped.

    Don’t take any sh– from Comcast and when their techs tell you to try speedtest, refuse and instead use ShaperProbe.

  4. William Sommerwerck

    I live outside Seattle. I just ran ShaperProbe and Comcast’s utility.

    For all intents and purposes, the rates were the same — downloiad about 57Mbps for SP and 59Mbps for Comcast, with upload values about 1/10 of those. ShaperProbe reported no shaping.

    Of course, these readings are for this area, at this time of day (3AM).

  5. Uncle Sam

    Comcast – a.k.a. Xfinity has been lying to consumers for years regarding the source of their television signal feeds versus the satellite TV providers, so why should their internet provider service be any different? They are constantly attacking the satellite dish providers television service saying how unreliable satellite service is, all the while they get their feed from – you guessed it – SATELLITES! So what is the difference between their TV and the dish? Absolutely nothing. Their signal is as dependent on good weather for reception as the satellite TV companies.

    They are willing to lie to you about that, so why not lie to you about their “superior” internet service? I have Xfinity internet and it has some consistent problems – buffering because of low speeds, and the wifi modem is dropping out on a daily basis. Granted it is easy enough to pull the plug on the modem to power off reset it, but the inconvenience of having to do so is more than a pain. If it were investigated by the FCC I believe that Comcast owes it’s subscribers a ton of money for lack of service. Because it is the behemoth of cable providers and linked to broadcast media outlets, this FCC will not investigate this matter. It is a legalized monopoly that uses it’s power to cheat, lie, and steal from the consumer. The problem is we have few choices, so as a consumer protection advocate it appears the FCC is a failure – no doubt the result of our corrupt federal government.

    Will the victimization of the consumer ever be a priority to our government? Not as long as the current corruption holds sway.

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