Surprise! Wireless ISPs Throttle Video Streaming

Credit: pathdoc/ShutterstockCredit: pathdoc/Shutterstock

Northeastern University research has confirmed what many already suspected: cellular internet service providers (ISPs) are throttling streaming video services. The full research has yet to be released--it's set to arrive sometime in 2019--but the university's news outlet published a report this week showing that "nearly every U.S. cell provider is doing throttling" on services like Netflix and YouTube with no immediately apparent reason.

The data was collected from millions of people across 161 countries who downloaded the Wehe app. That utility makes it easier to determine if a cellular network provider is limiting the amount of bandwidth available to specific apps while allowing others to use as much as they require. In many cases, services like Netflix, YouTube and Amazon were limited to speeds between 0.7 and 4Mbps even when networks appeared uncongested.

Each cell provider throttles various services differently. Verizon doesn't seem to care about limiting NBCSports or Skype, for example, but it does impose limits on more popular video services. Most of the studied providers limited YouTube and throttled Netflix, but slightly less, while roughly half targeted Amazon, and only a handful limited bandwidth for NBCSports and Skype. It seems like more popular services are targeted more often.

Don't think Northeastern's findings only affect mobile users. Many people in the U.S. rely on cellular data for internet access. This is especially true in rural areas where ADSL, fiber and cable broadband is unavailable. Just look at the FCC's map of broadband availability to see the number of available providers dwindle in less-populated areas, or note Pew's finding that 20 percent of Americans can only access the internet via their smartphone.

Satellite internet provider HughesNetworkSystems also appeared in Northeastern's findings. Of the services included in this report, the company only throttled Netflix, but it limited the service to 0.7Mbps. People in rural areas turn to (expensive) satellite providers when they get sick of dial-up internet or when cellular network providers aren't an option. HughesNetworkSystems' participation in this throttling shows cell networks aren't the only problem.

That means a significant portion of U.S. internet users must deal with the effects of these networks' throttling of streaming video services whenever they go online. Fears of similar things happening to wired broadband have also increased following the FCC's repeal of net neutrality protections. If these companies are willing to arbitrarily limit download speeds on their wireless networks, why wouldn't they do the same for those on wired ones?

Many people have reported that their ISPs are doing just that. It's reached the point where Netflix, Google and other service providers have started to offer easy-to-use tools that make it easier to prove ISPs aren't delivering their promised speeds for specific websites (more on that and what you can do about it can be found in this  article from our sister site, Tom's Guide). Northeastern's report is more evidence that net neutrality is fading fast.

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  • Integr8d
    Funny how this news is running everywhere. But when Trump mentions search results about his name (and there's actual research confirming it), nary a peep from the tech sites.
  • theyeti87
    Similar to this, I have a big gripe about my wireless service with Verizon. Everybody knows Verizon will throttle your wireless data connection if you're in a population-dense area.

    Here's the rub for me. There are no more than 200,000 people living within 50 mile radius from me. I live in a town of 4,000 and work in a town of 140,000, which has a large Big Ten campus. At work, I get my full LTE speeds. I go near campus and I get a whopping 500kbps... which makes the phone unusable for apps. I pay for "unlimited data".

    We need Net Neutrality.
  • patrick47018
    I've definitely noticed something like this on T-Mobile, I can barely stream 720p@60 on YouTube which full 4G LTE signal, but if I connect to a VPN I can stream 1440p@60 or 4K without issue.