What is Bandwidth Throttling?
Bandwidth throttling occurs when an internet service provider intentionally slows down its users’ internet speeds. While it’s sometimes necessary to use throttling to manage traffic on mobile networks, internet providers can also use bandwidth throttling to reduce overall internet use on the network (and therefore save costs) and to upsell more expensive data plans with faster internet speeds.
Let’s take a closer look at three common types of bandwidth throttling: Fair Use Policies, tiered network access (i.e. throttling specific services), and protocols that manage tower congestion.
Fair Access Policies
Fair Access Policy (FAP) is used to throttle internet speeds for any user who exceeds a “soft” data limit set by the internet provider. This data limit, called “normal use,” varies from provider to provider. Providers might use this type of throttling to (a) make its plans “fairer” by ensuring everyone uses about the same amount of data, (b) upsell more expensive plans, and (c) keep multiple users from sharing a single connection or keep individual users from reselling access to their connection.
Fair Use Policies are often the most disruptive type of bandwidth throttling since what providers call “normal use” can be far below the average data use on the network.
Tiered Network Access
Internet providers sometimes throttle internet speeds for specific services. This type of throttling applies load balancing techniques to mobile networks, often with the aim of preserving provider bandwidth and improving network performance. A provider might choose to throttle services that use a lot of data, like streaming video or using BitTorrent, or actually choose to prioritize this traffic and throttle internet speeds for less urgent services like web browsing.
In the same way, some online applications also throttle internet speeds for certain services within the application. Applications might throttle speeds to reduce local network congestion and avoid overloading individual servers, which could crash the program. They might also use throttling to upsell more expensive options that are faster because they don’t throttle bandwidth.
Tower Congestion Protocols
A provider allocated a specific “bandwidth block” of radio spectrum, ranging from 1.4 MHz to 20 MHz, to each cellular tower in its network. While towers that have 20 MHz of radio spectrum have the highest capacity, providers often give smaller blocks to rural towers because radio spectrum is limited and there are usually fewer people using cell towers in rural areas.
Bandwidth is the maximum amount of data a tower can handle at one time. When bandwidth exceeds data use, the tower can process all requests immediately and at full speed. When data use exceeds bandwidth, the tower can’t process everything at once. The tower throttles internet speeds so that it doesn’t have to deny any requests – it can just take them more slowly instead.
Unfortunately, this type of throttling is usually necessary to preserve the integrity of the network.