Is a slow VPN connection bothering you? If it is, you have come to the right place. A common complaint that we often see from VPN users is that their VPNs have slow download speeds as seen through online speed tests. While this is a known issue, it is also important to understand what affects the download and upload speeds that speed tests report. Let's demystify slow VPN speeds.
What Does a Speed Test Result Mean?
Speed test results show the internet connection speed we would receive on our device from the host servers of the speed test. It is not necessary for this reported speed to be the same as the connection speed promised by our ISP. It is not necessary for this speed test to reflect a consistent speed either. Your ISP is only a small entity on the Internet, and the websites you visit do not lie inside your ISP's network, but outside and far away. These speed tests on the other hand, choose a server nearest to your ISP and give a download speed result.
While this is reliable for most parts when we are talking about an ISP, it is not always reliable in case of VPNs. However, before we start talking about VPNs, it is important to take a brief overview of how ISPs work and how that can affects your speed test results.
How ISPs Exchange Data
When your ISP promises a 100 Mbps connection, it means that you connect to them through a maximum 100 Mbps link. Your ISP, in turn, is part of a backbone of optical networks to which other ISPs connect.
When you watch your favorite TV shows on Netflix, your 100 Mbps connection can send you videos at 100 Mbps speed only if your ISP gets the video at 100 Mbps itself. Sadly, that is not always the case and peering technology tries to solves this to some extent by allowing network sharing between ISPs.
Peering reduces the number of physical routes to your destination websites and sometimes, it also adds faster servers to this route. This results in faster video streams and a faster Internet for you.
But peering does not just affects your Netflix video streams. It also affects how fast your websites load, and it also affects your online speed test results, because the speed tests that you run measure the download speed of a file. This file is hosted on a CDN and peering takes you to the CDN's network faster.
However, things behave a little differently with VPNs. VPNs mark your first hop in a foreign country and now, your first point of contact with the Internet itself has moved miles away. While this is a cited as the major reason for slowness of VPNs, it is not the only reason. There are quite a few things besides distance that also result in VPN speeds being slow.
Factors That Result in Slow VPN Speed
At Tom's VPN, we noticed that when we connected to a VPN, there were many additional factors affecting VPN speeds.
- ISP Connection Issues
When you connect to the Internet through your ISP, the IP address you connect to is called a gateway. All further connections, including your VPN connection to the Internet go through this physical gateway. Hence, while a VPN connection takes you outside your ISPs network logically, it still has to go through your ISPs physical network.
At times, the ISP can have slow days from network congestion and this can impact your VPN speed. Also, if you are on a slow ISP to start with, a faster VPN will not give you better speeds. Clearly, you have little control over this factor.
- Geographic Location
This is another factor you cannot control. When using a VPN, your ISP acts as a middleman forwarding your data packet. This time, your traffic has to traverse:
- the location of your computer on the ISP's network
- the ISP's physical location
- the VPN server's location
- the location of the destination website server
All these points in the connection play a significant role in the overall speed of the link from you to a website and slowness can come from each one of them.
Your Computer -> Your ISP -> Your VPN Server -> Destination Website
VPN clients try to mitigate this to some extent by checking for ping times.
- Hop Count
When on a VPN connection, we are essentially connecting to a server far far away, and asking to be part of their local network. This geographical distance can at times translate into more number of logical hops to our favorite website, and make our VPN connection seem slow. Higher logical hops causes our data to travel through a higher number of routers and switches, increasing our speed liability.
Below are the request hops made when we tried accessing Tom's VPN from TunnelBear over Singapore and Italian server.
- Singapore Server
- Italian Server
Tracing route to tomsvpn.com [126.96.36.199]
over a maximum of 30 hops:
1 95 ms 95 ms 97 ms 172.18.13.1
2 96 ms 100 ms 96 ms 188.8.131.52
3 96 ms 95 ms 95 ms 184.108.40.206
Tracing route to tomsvpn.com [220.127.116.11] over a maximum of 30 hops: 1 151 ms 151 ms 151 ms 172.18.13.1 2 152 ms 152 ms 151 ms 18.104.22.168 3 * * * Request timed out. 4 151 ms 151 ms 151 ms te0-2-0-5.rcr21.mil01.atlas.cogentco.com [22.214.171.124] 5 162 ms 160 ms 160 ms be2314.ccr21.mrs01.atlas.cogentco.com [126.96.36.199] 6 170 ms 170 ms 170 ms be3092.ccr41.par01.atlas.cogentco.com [188.8.131.52] 7 177 ms 178 ms 177 ms be12497.ccr41.lon13.atlas.cogentco.com [184.108.40.206] 8 251 ms 250 ms 250 ms be2317.ccr41.jfk02.atlas.cogentco.com [220.127.116.11] 9 247 ms 247 ms 248 ms be2056.ccr21.jfk10.atlas.cogentco.com [18.104.22.168] 10 249 ms 256 ms 244 ms ae-13.r08.nycmny01.us.bb.gin.ntt.net [22.214.171.124] 11 245 ms 247 ms 245 ms ae-3.r24.nycmny01.us.bb.gin.ntt.net [126.96.36.199] 12 315 ms 315 ms 315 ms ae-2.r20.sttlwa01.us.bb.gin.ntt.net [188.8.131.52] 13 316 ms 339 ms 315 ms ae-0.r21.sttlwa01.us.bb.gin.ntt.net [184.108.40.206] 14 330 ms 330 ms 330 ms ae-3.r23.snjsca04.us.bb.gin.ntt.net [220.127.116.11] 15 331 ms 330 ms 330 ms ae-0.r22.snjsca04.us.bb.gin.ntt.net [18.104.22.168] 16 502 ms 501 ms 500 ms ae-2.r20.sngpsi05.sg.bb.gin.ntt.net [22.214.171.124] 17 501 ms 501 ms 501 ms ae-2.r00.sngpsi02.sg.bb.gin.ntt.net [126.96.36.199] 18 491 ms 490 ms 489 ms 188.8.131.52 19 * * * Request timed out. 20 495 ms 496 ms 494 ms 184.108.40.206 Trace complete.
The Singapore server took us to Tom's VPN in three simple hops, and was faster for accessing Tom's VPN.
Server locations and data hops contribute a lot to the difference between a slow VPN and a fast one. No user action can rectify this as the situation is natural and spreads worldwide.
Under ideal circumstances, this would mean that the Singapore servers for TunnelBear will always be faster than the Italian servers. However, we do not live in an ideal world, and we will see why.
- Timezones and World Business Hours
When we speed tested our VPN connection over a period of three days, we could see the speed varying as the day progressed. Contrary to what the hop-count would have us believe, TunnelBear was at times faster in Italy than in Singapore in our download speed tests.
Another perspective of the same data from above gives us some more information.
As we can see, compared to 5:30 AM UTC, at 7:30 PM UTC, TunnelBear results in a slow VPN speed at all the main hubs of the Internet- namely the USA, Singapore, and Germany. However, 7:30 PM was also when speeds in Italy and Mexico were higher than Singapore and USA.
Hence, while higher hop counts gave us slower average speeds at Italy and Mexico, the speed also depended on how many users could be awake and be connecting to those servers at the time of our speed tests. Too many users active on a network can cause congestion like we see on roads. Clearly, timezone is a critical factor resulting in slow VPN speeds. The download speed on TunnelBear US servers dropped from over 15 Mbps at its best to under 5 Mbps at the busiest hours.
So, hop count and time zones can have joint effects on Internet speeds. Hence, even without a VPN connection, you will notice speed fluctuations across 24 hours.
That still doesn't explain the massive difference between TunnelBear speeds in USA and Mexico, does it? Well, read on.
- Slow VPN Server Hosts and Limitations
Have you ever wondered how VPNs spread their network across so many countries? The truth is, they do not spread their network in the literal sense. Instead, they rent servers in those countries and run their VPN services on those servers. One of our tests for TunnelBear VPN led us to a DigitalOcean IP address and another to a LeaseWeb IP. Both of these are cloud hosting services.
While renting a server is extremely cost and time effective, it is also limiting to a certain extent because now, the VPN service has to rely on the server infrastructure of this third party host. These servers come with their own bandwidth and processing limits, and this affects the server throughput.
The more the number of users connecting to a server, the slower it becomes. Moreover, some servers are not equipped to handle too many users while some others are designed for this particular purpose. Further, the cloud host where our VPN server lives also plays a role in deciding our VPN connection speed.
Conclusion: Slow VPN Connection Speed
Now we know the things that more or less contribute to slow VPN connections. We cannot correct many of these problems as that is how the internet works for everyone else in the world.
Apart from these global factors, a slow WiFi network setup and poor VPN client configurations can also result in slowness. These two areas are under your control, and you can optimize things like these to improve the performance of a slow VPN connection to some extent.
Are there any other reasons for a slow VPN that we missed out? Let us know in the comments section.