The difference between prioritization and network throttling

No one likes it when their iPhone or Android phone data slows down. Provider decisions typically cause this. It’s usually because some part of your plan or activity triggers a response that slows down your data speeds. That means downloads take longer, websites don’t load as well, and some apps or online games may become unplayable. That’s not great, and it can happen in any unlimited plan, regardless of how promising the language is.

However, providers can implement different kinds of data slowdowns, notably throttling and network prioritization. Understanding the difference between these two can help you get data speeds back up when you need them most or know when you have to accept lower data quality for the time being. Let’s take a closer look at what everyone should know.

Throttling vs. network prioritization: Basic definitions

At a glance, throttling and network prioritization seem like the same practice. Both involve companies slowing down how data is passed through your phone plan. However, there are key differences in how they work in practice. Let’s tackle specific definitions.

Data throttling

Data throttling is when an ISP (internet service provider) chooses specific plans or devices to slow down data speeds. The most infamous type of data throttling occurs when users go beyond a certain amount of monthly data, even if they have an unlimited plan. But there are other reasons for data throttling, including:

  • A provider gets readings that suggest you’re doing a lot of torrenting or other questionable activity.
  • Your device is on a busy Wi-Fi network, like public Wi-Fi at an airport.
  • Many people are using data in your area at peak hours, and the provider wants to make sure there’s enough bandwidth for everyone.

All major carriers, including Verizon and T-Mobile, use data throttling. If you have a phone plan, throttling is probably on the table.

Network prioritization

Network prioritization is a bit different. It does not indiscriminately slow down data streaming to your device. Instead, it chooses certain types of data or devices to prioritize and provide maximum speeds, while slowing down other types of data or devices. For example, it may prioritize high-demand activities like online gaming and video while slowing down traditional website performance.

ISPs may use network prioritization to optimize performance across a number of users, especially at peak hours. They may also prioritize during busy hours according to invisible data caps, similar to throttling. But you can also find this type of prioritization in many modern routers.

Sometimes, ISPs allow certain organizations to pay for network prioritization, ensuring that their services receive maximum speeds. This is a more debatable practice and isn’t quite as widespread.

Throttling vs. network prioritization: Biggest differences

What’s the bottom line here? It’s simple from a user perspective. Data throttling is a worse deal than network prioritization. When your data is throttled, everything you do is slower, and there’s no way you can control it. You simply aren’t getting the maximum speeds and, in some cases, the maximum speeds you paid for, which is why people get annoyed at the practice.

Network prioritization is a somewhat better compromise that gives speed to the activities that need it most, like gaming and video streaming, and devices that haven’t reached caps yet. That means users are less likely to notice the effects, and people don’t feel cheated in the same way. It’s also an effective way to manage bandwidth when there are a lot of users. However, it can be as annoying as throttling during the busiest times of the day.

Throttling vs. network prioritization: How can I tell which is happening?

When you experience slow performance, it can be difficult to narrow down the possibilities. If everything else seems fine, and you suspect throttling, there are a few things you can test to see what’s happening:

  • Switch to a VPN (virtual private network) service: This doesn’t always work, but in many cases, it prevents an ISP from recognizing you. Run a speed test with and without a VPN, and if you see a noticeable, regular difference, you’re probably being throttled.
  • Try out different activities: If your speeds seem fine while streaming video but poor on other activities, it could be network prioritization. If your speeds test well during off-hours when not many people are online but poor during the busiest times of day, that’s a sign of network prioritization for your device.

Throttling vs. network prioritization: How to avoid them

A female traveler using her phone while unpacking at a hotel

Dealing with throttling and network prioritization can prove tricky. Here are the strategies you’re looking at.

Avoid throttling: As suggested above, you can try a VPN and see if that solves the problem. Still, most good VPNs can also slow down your performance by their own nature (not to mention that they have monthly fees), so it may not be an ideal solution. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait until your next billing cycle begins and see if your data speeds improve.

Avoid network prioritization: Avoid important, demanding phone activities during the busiest times of the day. Understand that certain activities may get priority. And, as with throttling, wait until your next billing cycle for improved speeds. VPNs may help if you are being de-prioritized because you’ve reached a data cap, but otherwise, they won’t make a big difference and could make things worse.

Finding a provider or plan that doesn’t throttle speeds with either method is the perfect solution. But that can be difficult, so these methods may be your best shot at controlling speeds. If you need a speed boost, offload more demanding activities to your Wi-Fi, saving your phone plan data for when you need it. That way, you won’t trigger those invisible caps that create throttling or prioritization.

Now you’re ready to troubleshoot your slowdowns

With this information, you’re ready to make smarter decisions about how to use your data plan. Timing your data use with network prioritization can yield better results. With full-on data throttling, you may have to wait until your next bill cycle to get better speeds.

If throttling is too much to handle, we can suggest better carriers to try and some great-value data plans that you may want to investigate. There are ways to save, but reducing your monthly data usage can help a lot.

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