How Can a VPN Improve Download Speed?

We can all agree that faster download speeds are preferable and would assume that a VPN might slow things down a bit, but what if the opposite happens and your VPN actually increases the speed? With that in mind, today’s SuperUser Q&A post has the answer to a curious reader’s question.

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-driven grouping of Q&A web sites.

The Question

SuperUser reader RazeLegendz wants to know how a VPN can improve his download speed:

I was recently downloading something at 300 Kb/s, then I decided to turn my VPN on and the download speed suddenly jumped to 1.3 Mb/s. Why is this? Is it because the VPN server reduces the number of “hops” between the server and me?

How can a VPN improve someone’s download speed?

The Answer

SuperUser contributor davidgo has the answer for us:

There are a few possibilities. Unfortunately, the number of “hops” is irrelevant.

The first is compression. If the data you were downloading is uncompressed and your VPN offers compression, then this could explain it. However, most files transferred are likely to be compressed, so this is not as likely as it would seem at first.

The second and third options are related and have to do with your ISP’s connectivity and restrictions. Your VPN has found a faster path to the destination data, which could be because:
The ISP has multiple connections and the direct connection to the data is constrained. The VPN goes across a different connection, which in turn has better connectivity to the source of the data you are pulling, thus you are routing round the congestion.
The ISP is shaping certain kinds of traffic, possibly by type or destination or both. It could even be by content/payload, but that is less likely. By using a VPN, your traffic is being given priority or not being capped, so you are getting better speed.

There are some other possibilities, but these are again less likely. It could be that the VPN is using UDP while your download would typically use TCP, and different optimisations (MTU, for example) are allowing better use of your connection. Again, this is possible, but unlikely, mainly because you would expect either a much smaller or much greater difference in speed.

Have something to add to the explanation? Sound off in the comments. Want to read more answers from other tech-savvy Stack Exchange users? Check out the full discussion thread here.
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