At first glance this doesn’t make much sense. A VPN should always make your connection slower, never faster. But sometimes, the opposite can be true.
Let’s start with the basics. What’s the difference between a naked internet connection and one where you’re using a VPN?
Naked connection vs VPN
Think it like this: when you connect to a VPN, your traffic goes into that network, and comes out of a server somewhere else. That’s how come it changes your IP address. Then your traffic goes to the website you want to connect to. A VPN makes the journey from your computer to the website longer, not shorter, so it should make the process of connecting, uploading and downloading slower, not faster.
And in most cases that’s exactly what it does. Using a VPN can make your connection much, much slower. The most extreme example of this is the TOR network – as safe as it gets, and slow as hell.
VPNs encrypt your data, too, and they do it by taking the packets that data travels in and adding data to them. You’re making the journey longer, and adding more freight. How can that possibly make the data move around faster?
Bottom line: a naked internet connection should always be faster than a VPN.
But sometimes, the opposite is true.
How can a VPN be faster than a naked connection?
To understand how this works, we need to talk briefly about how the internet actually works.
Where the internet comes from
It seems out of place know, but the internet was originally designed to be super robust. The reason it was created was so that the US government would have a working communications system even in the event of a nuclear war.
The focus was on making a comms system where, even if lines were down, a lot of your signal would still get through. That’s why the internet uses packet switching technology.
Your data is broken up into packets and sent out, then put together from those packets at the other end. It’s very clever; even with some packets missing, your message would probably still make sense.
All the data you send and receive over the internet – from a Skype call to a login request on a website – is in the form of packets.
When you send those packets over the net, your ISP takes a look at them. It counts their number and examines their contents.
To understand why that matters, let’s talk – I promise, very briefly – about how your ISP works.
Packets, peering and ISPs
Most ISPs don’t have enough network to deliver what they promise. They can’t give you the speeds they promise and they can’t give you access to parts of the network they don’t control.
They get round this in a few ways.
ISPs get round bandwidth issues by changing how they deal with packets and treating different traffic differently.
Packets can be dropped – ISPs just let them die. Or they can be queued – let to pile up before being sent across the network. Typically packets will drop after being held in a queue for a while. If you’ve ever seen video or gameplay get suddenly blocky, discolored and weird-looking, you’ve seen packets drop. If you’ve seen what’s on your screen freeze, then speed up wildly before returning to normal, you’ve seen packets getting queued.
ISPs do this when they’ve overpromised bandwidth or when they have too much traffic – the same thing, to all intents and purposes.
They treat traffic differently too. Static data can be cached and delivered from somewhere much closer than the original website. That can actually slow down or distort your traffic, even though it’s intended to accelerate your traffic.
Finally, the problem could be someone else’s ISP. ISPs act like they’re seperate companies in competition with each other. Actually they all rely on each other to survive through a process called ‘peering’ – agreeing to let each other’s customers use their networks.
Those peering agreements mean ISPs can send your traffic miles out of its way, through another part of the network that’s getting less traffic. Or they can take the data packets you’re paying to have sent down fiber cable and dump them on another network’s old-timey copper pipes. Either way, your web slows down. And you have no say and no control.
So how can a VPN help?
VPs give you back control over your packets. That means they give you back control over how they’re routed too.
Your ISP might be able to do better – in theory, a naked connection should always be faster – but they often choose not to.
With a VPN you, not your ISP, decide how to route your traffic. Many VPNs will offer a choice of server locations; choose one that’s near the site you want to stream from or the game you want to play and you could boost your speed significantly.
Additionally, VPNs prevent caching by concealing the nature of your traffic from your ISP. When they can’t tell one packet from another they can’t speed some up and slow others down.
Which brings us to throttling.
ISPs throttle traffic. They do it when it’s illegal, they do it when they’ve promised not to, and they do it when they’ve been paid not to.
Traffic that’s unpredictable, has high peaks, and takes up a lot of room on the network is at prime risk for throttling – think online gaming or streaming HD TV. ISPs definitely throttle this stuff.
But if you use a VPN, they can’t throttle this data and not that, because they can’t tell one packet type from another. Again, you’re in control.
So will a VPN definitely make my traffic faster?
There are no guarantees. You can test your internet speed with and without a VPN at sites like Fast.com – try it at high traffic times like 7 or 8 PM, when the whole street is watching whatever we’re all going to watch until GoT comes out in 2019.
And you can test what it’s like to stream or game with and without a VPN, which is probably the best way to ascertain whether it’s a solution for you. If streaming is glitchy without a VPN and fine with one, you have a fix.
Finally, how do you choose the VPN you’ll use to put a rocket under your internet connection?
And we’d love to hear your stories of using a vPN to get the internet access you’re paying for!