Why is my mobile data speed so slow?

We live in an era where many countries around the world have already launched 5G networks. While we may still be at the start of that journey, mobile operators don’t seem to be getting tired of talking about the lightning-fast data speeds you can get on their 5G networks. As far as the potential of 5G technology is concerned, mobile operators are absolutely right in doing that. However, if you think that you will never experience slow mobile data speeds again, then you will probably be a bit disappointed. Irrespective of the technology involved, as a customer who pays for mobile services, it can be frustrating when your mobile data speeds are slowing you down.

There can be a multitude of reasons for slow mobile data speeds on your phone. Your phone connects to a mobile network which then connects to the servers that host the services you are trying to access. Issues with any of the involved entities i.e. your phone, your network or the services you are trying to access can cause your mobile data speeds to be slow.

A sensible approach can be to identify the issue clearly before making any decisions on the solution. It is good to cover the basics first by closing all the apps and/or web browsers on your phone. If the speeds are still slow you can even restart your phone. Some people might advise you to take your SIM out of the phone and re-insert etc. but that, in this case, might be a bit unnecessary. Re-inserting the SIM is more of an option if you had inserted it incorrectly the first time in which case you would have experienced bigger problems than just slower mobile data speeds. A simple restart is good enough and if that doesn’t solve the problem, then keep reading.

Identify your network

Before assuming that the problem is with the mobile network, you may want to find out which network your phone is using for accessing the internet i.e. mobile network or WiFi. Usually, when you connect your phone to a WiFi network, it will use that for all your online activities including WhatsApp messages, email, Facebook, Youtube, news and all the other apps and browsing. As soon as you move out of the coverage area for a WiFi network you may be connected to, your phone automatically switches to the mobile network. It is easy to find out whether you are connected to a mobile network for online services or WiFi, but if you are not sure, have a look below. Just to be clear, even when you are on WiFi, you are still connected to the mobile network for all other services like phone calls, SMS etc.

Connected to WiFi for online activities
Connected to a WiFi network for online activities
Connected to mobile/cellular network for online activities
Connected to a mobile cellular network for online activities

Sometimes though, if you are connected to a WiFi network and the signal quality is poor, your phone may keep switching between the WiFi and the mobile network which isn’t great either. It can also happen if your WiFi network is unstable because then your mobile phone can get “confused” between cellular and WiFi. It may even connect to both networks at the same time as in the picture below. While you can let your smartphone make a smart decision in terms of which network to choose, you may find it easier just to pick the stronger one yourself.

Connected to both WiFi and mobile networks

What if your mobile network is slowing you down?

If you are connected solely to your mobile network when experiencing the slower internet and if that persists no matter which website/app you use, then it is likely that there is an issue with your mobile network speed. The reason why we have said “likely” is because we haven’t yet ruled out if the issue is with the device, but we’ll cover that shortly. On the mobile network side, you first want to find out which access technology you are connected to.

So, for example, if you are connected to 4G+ or 4G, you can expect higher data speeds as opposed to earlier technologies like 3G and 2G etc. In the picture below the mobile is connected to 4G+ which represents LTE-Advanced and is fast. Speeds like 20 Mbps or more are easy to handle for this kind of network. If you see H+ or H sign, that means you are served by 3G technologies. Lastly, if you see E or G sign that means you are on 2G technologies. More on that throughout this website but check this one out if you want to get some additional info.

Connected to mobile/cellular network for online activities
Connected to 4G+ (LTE Advanced)

The access technology you are served by, e.g. 2G, 3G, 4G, etc., also depends on your location. It means that just because an operator offers 4G doesn’t mean that they will start deploying 4G networks in every corner of a country. So it may be that you get 4G+ all the time in the centre of a major city, but when you go to a remote town in the countryside, you may only get 3G at best. Mobile operators use a combination of new and earlier technologies to make sure that they can provide nationwide network coverage in a way that is also beneficial for them financially. For you, it means that you need to choose your mobile operator based on their network coverage in places where you spend most of your time.

The other inter-related thing that you want to keep an eye on is how consistent the signal quality is. For example, it could be that you are getting 4G+ but you only see one or two signal bars that keep disappearing. As a result, your mobile phone will be forced to keep switching to 4G, 3G or whatever else is more consistently available with better signal quality.

If you live in an area where you permanently get weak mobile signals from your mobile operator, then you have at least two choices. Either switch to another operator who offers better network coverage in your area, or you contact your operator to do something about it. You can find lots of websites that help you check the network coverage in your area and many mobile operators have that on their sites. If you live in the UK, you can check the mobile network coverage in your area through this page from Ofcom.

If you, however, choose to stay with your operator, then contact them to find out if they have any plans to improve coverage in your area or if they offer any signal boosters. Basically a signal booster is a small cell (femtocell) that you connect to your home broadband to act as a mini base station for improving your indoor mobile network coverage. From a use case perspective though, if you just want better network coverage so you can get better indoor mobile data speeds, then you might as well just connect your phone to the WiFi. A signal booster is more beneficial if you want to improve the network coverage and quality for all mobile services including voice calls, SMS etc.

It may be interesting to note that just because you see a full 4G+ signal doesn’t guarantee that you should have super-fast mobile data speeds at all times. In addition to network coverage, network capacity is one of the key considerations of a mobile operator. The capacity determines how much bandwidth is available in any given location (or cell) and how many people including yourself are trying to use that capacity.

In busy hours, when lots of people are trying to access the network at the same time, the available bandwidth is shared among all users which may mean that every user gets a very small amount of the available bandwidth. Simply stated, that means you will end up getting slower data speeds compared to what you get in normal circumstances. In the good old days before the lockdown and Coronavirus, the busy hours used to be mornings and evenings when people were on their way to work or on their way home from work. In special circumstances like nowadays (June 2020, UK), people who are working from home are likely to use their mobile data as a backup for WiFi also which can increase the load on the mobile network.

Lastly on the mobile network side, some operators use a specialised network technique called ‘throttling‘. Throttling is a way to control the load on mobile networks but setting a limit on the maximum data speed a customer can get.

For example, it may be that when a customer on an unlimited data tariff is using mobile data a bit too generously in any given month, the operator may decide to put a hard limit of e.g. 2 Mbps on them for the rest of the month. That way, the overall data usage for that customer reduces because they end up consuming a lot less data when the speeds are low. Operators can also achieve that by limiting that customer to 3G-only which can automatically slow the data speeds. Operators usually specify these things and the unlimited data tariffs also have a Fair Use Policy to avoid potential misuse of the services. It is a good idea to read the small details of your tariff before you purchase them especially if the prices sound too good to be true.

Can your device lead to slow mobile data speeds?

Slow mobile data speeds can also be linked to the device you are using. If you feel that other people on the same network in the same location have better data speeds than you, then it is worth checking if they are using more superior devices. The age of the device, the hardware specifications e.g. processor, RAM, etc. can make your phone slow in general. Sometimes when you have more apps on a phone than it can take, that can also cause your phone to slow down. It is a good practice to keep an eye on how full your phone memory is and to keep clearing up the cache and unnecessary files every now and then.

Sometimes there are apps that are “data hoggers” and keep running in the background. That way, some of your available bit-rate is consumed by those apps which can slow you down for whatever else you are trying to do on the phone. If you feel that your phone used to browse faster in the past and now is getting slow, you may consider resetting the phone or just upgrading to a new one.

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