What is throttling in mobile networks?

Mobile operators have some tools at their disposal to control data usage in case someone tries to misuse their services. They can also use these tools to create and sell certain tariffs at different price points. One such technique used in mobile communications is data throttling. Mobile operators employ data throttling to put controls on how their customers use mobile data. Throttling is when a mobile operator puts a certain limit on the maximum data speed a customer can get when using a certain tariff. For example, it may be that under certain circumstances, your mobile operator decides to place a maximum limit of 2 Mbps on your tariff. Why would they do that? That’s what we are going to cover in this post.

What is mobile throttling?

Mobile throttling or data throttling is when a mobile operator sets a limit on the data rate you get on your mobile phone. For example, if you end up exceeding your monthly data allowance, instead of charging you the overage rates, they may decide to slow down your data speed, e.g. put a limit of 50 kbps on your phone until the next billing cycle. In some cases, this can be achieved by a mobile operator by locking your SIM to a lower network technology (e.g. 3G) so that you can’t exceed certain speed limits. Check out our dedicated post to learn about the speeds you get on different network technologies.

How can you tell if your phone is being throttled?

If you are connected to your mobile phone network as normal and notice a sudden decrease in data speeds, you may want to make some checks. If you are with a reasonable mobile operator, then data throttling should not happen for no reason. A good practice is first to do the basic checks, e.g. restart the phone and check in the phone settings if you have somehow locked yourself to a lower network technology than what you are allowed. For example, in the screenshot below, the phone is set to 4G, which means 4G and lower technologies, e.g. 3G and 2G, are available because mobile phones are backwards compatible. However, if this phone is set to 3G, it will only be able to access 3G and 2G but not 4G, which can slow down the data speeds. The other thing you can check is if something is temporarily going on with your mobile operator’s network that can impact data speeds, e.g. engineering work etc. If everything is normal and yet your data speed is down, then it may be that your mobile phone is being throttled. But before jumping to a conclusion like this, check with your mobile operator.

Screenshot from an iPhone to give an idea of where to find network technologies

How do I stop my phone from being throttled?

The first step to avoid data throttling is to buy your mobile tariffs from reliable mobile operators that provide full transparency on pricing. Some mobile tariffs are sold at cheaper rates because they have maximum speed limits. For example, in the UK, you can buy mobile tariffs with speed limits of, e.g. 2 Mbps, which means no matter how great your network coverage, you will never exceed 2 Mbps. However, if your mobile operator has decided to throttle you, the only way forward is to speak to the operator to address the issue. In some cases, with unlimited data packages, the mobile phone tariffs have a fair use policy which gives mobile operators the control to stop any misuse of their service.

Is data throttling the same as service prioritisation/deprioritisation?

Service prioritisation is when certain mobile services, e.g. voice calls, data services etc., are given certain priority levels so that, in case of network congestion, the most important services are easily available to the customers. Data throttling and service prioritisation are not the same things; however, the symptoms may seem similar. For example, if a network is fully loaded (busy), it may be that customers of 4G LTE can’t get the speeds they are used to getting, which may seem similar to throttling. However, that is a time-limited issue, and as soon as the network congestion is reduced, the speeds can go back to normal. Have a look at this post to find out the average 4G LTE speeds.

Here are some helpful downloads

Thank you for reading this post, I hope it helped you in developing a better understanding of cellular networks. But sometimes, we need some extra support especially when preparing for a new job, or studying a new topic, or maybe just buying a new phone. Whatever you are trying to do, here are some downloads that can help you:

Students & fresh graduates: If you are just starting, the complexity of the cellular industry can be a bit overwhelming. But don’t worry, I have created this FREE ebook so you can familiarise yourself with the basics like 3G, 4G etc. As a next step, check out the latest edition of the same ebook with more details on 4G & 5G networks with diagrams. You can then read Mobile Networks Made Easy which explains the network nodes e.g. BTS, MSC, GGSN etc.

Professionals: If you are an experienced professional but new to mobile communications, it may seem hard to compete with someone who has a decade of experience in the cellular industry. But not everyone who works in this industry is always up to date on the bigger picture and challenges given how quickly the industry evolves. The bigger picture comes from experience which is why I’ve carefully put together a few slides to get you started in no time. So if work in sales, marketing, product, project or any other area of business where you need a high-level view, Introduction to Mobile Communications can give you a quick start. Also, here are some templates to help you prepare your own slides on product overview and product roadmap.

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