Netflix has been the subject of debate recently, not just for rumors that the service plans to increase its per-month pricing but also that certain Internet service providers (ISPs) are throttling bandwidth to users. The result? Slow movie and TV show downloads, coupled with an inordinate amount of buffering instead of watching. One answer to this problem is the use of VPN services, which let consumers get around many of the restrictions placed on them by ISPs. But do they really work?
The Netflix Problem
Netflix has a solid business model — a large variety of content for a low price every month. Sure, the video quality isn’t the highest, and not all versions of Netflix — PS4, Xbox One, and Wii just to name a few — work equally well, but the sheer number of shows and movies available, coupled with breakout Netflix-only hits like Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards means the streaming video provider isn’t hurting for customers. With Internet speeds increasing, however, and users fed up with traditional cable networks, more pressure is put on ISPs to deliver gigabytes of information to customers every week — and in some cases, every day.
Consumers now allege that some ISPs are starting to throttle bandwidth. This stops short of putting a hard cap on the amount of data users can download each month but slows the rate at which specific services download content. As a result, shows take longer to load, menus are unresponsive, and longer movies become downright unwatchable.
The VPN Solution?
A VPN, or “virtual private network,” is a way to alter the IP address of your computer, allowing you to bypass many of the restrictions placed on your connection by an ISP. VPN services are available for free from sites like OkayFreedom or OpenVPN Shield Exchange, and for pay from providers like VyprVPN (around $7 per month) or AirVPN (around $9 per month). Many of these services prevent “deep packet inspection” by ISPs, meaning your Internet company won’t know if you’re accessing Netflix or not, which would hopefully prevent any kind of bandwidth throttling. VPNs also fully encrypt the data and hide your IP address from websites you visit, instead showing the address of the closest VPN server. Some services also offer iOS or Android apps, which let you avoid these problems on mobile devices as well.
It’s worth noting that some VPN services keep logs of all activity on their network for 30, 60, or 90 days, which opens up the problem of a potential privacy breach. In addition, some are located outside the United States. While this increases basic privacy, it can also mean a slowdown in overall connection speed due to high packet latency. And in certain cases, even a good VPN won’t solve the problem. If your Internet connection is simply too slow overall or if your provider throttles all connections, paying for a virtual private network won’t make Netflix movies download any faster.
If you’re having trouble with Netflix slowdown, start by running an Internet speed test. Double-check that your speed matches what you’re paying for and check for anyone hijacking your wireless network or connection issues with Netflix itself. If everything else checks out, it’s possible your ISP is throttling your connection and a VPN service could get you back on track.