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Surprise! Wireless ISPs Throttle Video Streaming

(Image credit: 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.

  • 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.
    Reply
  • 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.
    Reply
  • 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.
    Reply
  • Raymond_92
    This has nothing to do with Net Neutrality and everything to do with keeping the overloaded cellular data networks from being crippled by load.
    Reply
  • derekullo
    21315356 said:
    This has nothing to do with Net Neutrality and everything to do with keeping the overloaded cellular data networks from being crippled by load.

    Yep 1000's of teenagers and young adults all doing netflix, youtube and torrents while on college grounds.

    Reply
  • caustin582
    21314445 said:
    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.

    First of all, ISP throttling and search result filtering are two very different things. Most people have little to no choice when it comes to their ISP, so if it's actively working against their interests, they have no recourse other than just not using the internet. If you don't like the way Google presents search results to you, then you can use one of many other search engines. They're all free. They owe you nothing, and likewise.

    Second, "when Donald Trump mentions search results about his name" it is just that, and nothing more. What this article is talking about is a study that looked at a vast amount of data and reported its findings. You can look at their methods and their data if you're skeptical. If Donald Trump conducted a similar study and tweeted about it while sharing the details, then we'd actually have something to talk about, but that's not what happened. He made a statement offering no evidence or argument, which is something that should be dismissed as quickly as it is brought up if you are a rational thinker.

    21315356 said:
    This has nothing to do with Net Neutrality and everything to do with keeping the overloaded cellular data networks from being crippled by load.

    If the issue were just about bandwidth, then ISPs would simply be capping or limiting a user's general bandwidth (which is something that net neutrality regulations never stopped ISPs from doing). But instead we see different content providers being treated differently, regardless of the type of content they're providing or amount of bandwidth they're transmitting. Basically, ISPs are now in a position to influence and even dictate where their users watch videos, do their shopping, get their news, etc.
    Reply
  • DRosencraft
    Like Raymond_92 said, I think the piece everyone seems to gloss over is the fact that this isn't some arbitrary move just to piss people off. NBCSports isn't throttled because its not highly used. Netflix is throttled because it is highly used. The picture is obvious - the big data spots are gonna be limited to keep loads down. You can argue about whether they're doing enough to increase bandwidth etc., but this article makes it seem like this an entirely malicious act meant to target specific groups of people.
    Reply
  • sykozis
    21314445 said:
    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.
    When I search for anything Trump related (as I did for this post), the search results are as follows...
    people.com
    abcnews.com
    npr.org
    foxnews.com
    cnn.com
    cnn.com
    vanityfair.com
    newyorker.com
    nymag.com

    Nobody is censoring "conservative" websites or white nationalist websites as Trump claims. The only "research" confirming such, is from a "conservative" group that tries to push their socio-political bias. If you can find an unbiased source of such results, great, but as long as it's a "conservative" group making such claims, the "research" lacks any degree of credibility. Especially when it's from a group that wants to censor Liberal and Progressive media.
    Reply
  • caustin582
    21315528 said:
    Like Raymond_92 said, I think the piece everyone seems to gloss over is the fact that this isn't some arbitrary move just to piss people off. NBCSports isn't throttled because its not highly used. Netflix is throttled because it is highly used. The picture is obvious - the big data spots are gonna be limited to keep loads down. You can argue about whether they're doing enough to increase bandwidth etc., but this article makes it seem like this an entirely malicious act meant to target specific groups of people.

    You should look at the graphs in the original article that Toms linked to: https://news.northeastern.edu/2018/09/10/new-research-shows-your-internet-provider-is-in-control/

    There's no logical explanation other than the fact that certain ISPs are targeting specific companies as they see fit, rather than applying across the board throttling based on bandwidth usage. Do you think only ATT users watch too much NBCSports? iWireless users just stick to Netflix and never watch Youtube? Cellcom users somehow overload Amazon app but nothing else? Come on, man.
    Reply
  • jonathan1683
    there is no net neutrality and iirc it didn't apply to cellular networks anyways. If you want unlimited data there's the trade off which I'm happy with. T-Mobile is pretty transparent about this and I think they have a pay tier you can use for un-throttled you can even pay for 1 day of use. If you want to circumvent it set up a VPN on your router my netgear has it built in and i use it all the time.
    Reply