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What Causes Slow Downloads on Your Phone?

Posted on 11/09/20 by Nicholas Jones

Slow cell phone download speeds can be frustrating, and they can all but wreck the functionality of your mobile device. Find out more about why speeds matter, what slows them down and how you might fix the problems below.

what causes slow downloads on your phone

What Are Upload and Download Speeds?

Mobile data moves in two ways. The first is via download.

Downloads occur when data comes from another device or the internet down to the local level on your device — in this case, specifically, your mobile phone. When you stream videos or music or download an e-book or app, you’re engaging in the download process.

The second direction mobile data travels is via upload, which is when data moves from your device to other devices connected to the internet, such as servers. Uploading a picture to Facebook or Instagram, playing multiplayer online games in real-time and running video conference calls are all examples of activities that rely on the upload process.

How fast the data moves in either direction is the upload or download speed. Typically, these speeds are measured in megabits per second (Mbps).

Why Does Speed Matter?

Your upload and download speeds have a lot to do with how your device functions online. The more data you need in a short period of time, the higher the speed must be to support what you want to do.

For example, if all you want to do is scroll basic webpages or send and receive pictures of family members, you don’t need to receive or send enormous amounts of data within short time periods. So, you won’t necessarily need super high speeds.

But if you want to play high-end computer games online or stream videos in high definition, you’re going to be downloading — and potentially uploading — a lot of data every second. In these cases, you’ll need a faster connection to support your activities.

What Are Good Upload and Download Speeds?

Whether you have good upload and download speeds can be measured with a speed test.

The Federal Communications Commission provides a guide for minimum download speeds for certain activities. For example, if you want to stream high-definition video, 5 to 8 Mbps is typically the minimum required, and you’ll need at least 25 Mbps for 4K video content. Just to telecommute or do school work at home, the FCC recommends connections of 5 to 25 Mbps.

If you’re paying for a certain level of service, you obviously want to ensure you’re getting your money’s worth. Whenever service falls below the standards you’re paying for, it’s time to work out what’s causing the problem.

Why Is My Phone Downloading So Slow? (7 Potential Answers)

There are many reasons your phone could be downloading data slower than normal or slower than expected. Sometimes, the device is the issue. Other times, it’s the carrier, site or app that might be a problem. Find out more about seven common reasons for slow mobile download speeds below.

1. Carrier Data Throttling

Throttling occurs when the carrier purposefully slows down the speed of data downloads on your network. There are a few reasons this might happen:

  • There’s too much traffic on the tower or network and the provider is trying to ensure everyone has at least some access for basic use.
  • Speed has been restricted to reduce costs. Lower-cost phone plans, whether provided by a carrier or by a multiple virtual network operator piggybacking on a larger carrier’s network, often come with lower data transfer speeds. This allows carriers to tier the level of service provided at various price points and to place a higher priority on the traffic of users with more expensive plans.
  • You’ve exceeded your data limits. Many cell phone plans put caps on monthly data usage. If you’ve gone over the cap associated with your data plan or hotspot, your carrier is likely to throttle your transfer speeds until either the end of the month or the end of your billing period.

In general, if you’re investigating throttling as a possible explanation for slow transfer rates, you may want to explore ways you can raise your plan’s data. Rectifying the problem may involve shelling out additional money for a more robust plan.

2. Peak Period Traffic

Sometimes the sheer amount of traffic on a network can slow down the experience for all its users even if the carrier doesn’t take action to throttle anyone. Even though it’s not a tangible resource, internet speed and bandwidth is limited, so when many people are trying to use it at the same time, there may not be enough to go around.

Consider this: If you have a home internet connection that supports up to 50 Mbps and everyone in the family is online on different devices at the same time, your individual speeds might be slower, right? That same principle holds true when everyone in the area with the same network is trying to use it.

Common peak traffic periods include evenings, when people are home and using devices to communicate, watch entertainment or play games, as well as during shared events such as disasters or even the Super Bowl, when many people might be trying to communicate or use devices for other reasons at the same time.

3. Your Phone’s Data Cache Needs Clearing

When you’re browsing online, your device caches all sorts of data. That means it stores local copies of web pages, information related to sites you’ve visited and website cookies that help automate form entries, among other things. These caches can eventually take up a lot of your device’s random access memory (RAM), choking or even freezing its ability to carry out simple tasks. Clearing your phone’s data cache can be a useful way of correcting the problem.

4. Your Device Is Overburdened or Out of Date

If the device you’re using is one or two model generations old, it’s simply ancient in cell phone terms. It may work just fine for some operations but lack sufficient memory or processor speed to transfer data as fast as you want — even when the cell signal is strong.

Alternatively, even relatively up-to-date devices can run out of memory and bandwidth if they’re juggling too many tasks. Having many background apps running, syncing with other devices and downloading updates all at the same time — or using outdated or poor-quality apps — can impact your device’s performance.

It’s important to periodically review your apps, delete those that are superfluous and manage background activity to ensure unnecessary apps aren’t running all the time —otherwise, they may end up choking your phone’s memory and other resources.

5. Virus or Malware Activity

Viruses and malware give hackers access to your data, generating unwanted advertising and providing malicious actors with ways of retrieving, exploiting and reselling sensitive information. If these are operating on your smartphone, it’s a near certainty that your upload and download speeds will take a hit, because that malicious activity is taking some of your resources.

6. Your Phone’s Firmware Needs Updating

It’s worth thinking about when you last checked with your phone’s manufacturer to see if there’s been an OS or firmware update for your device. If you don’t have the latest OS or firmware update running on your phone, there’s an excellent chance you won’t have the highest speeds when trying to upload or download.

7. Weak Cell Signal

One of the most common culprits of slow data on your phone can be your cell signal. A weak signal, regardless of the cause, can slow your data transfers. A poor connection often means that your phone has to continuously send and resend data because the connection keeps interrupting the transfer. When this happens, uploads and downloads end up taking longer than they should.

How to Improve Your Cell Phone’s Download and Upload Speeds

If you’ve determined that poor cell signal is the reason your phone’s download and upload speeds have slowed to a crawl, there are a couple of commonplace solutions you can use.

  • Step outside and try to re-establish the data connection. Common building materials can be notorious cell signal blockers. When a signal is obstructed, it impacts the upload and download speeds on your mobile device. Concrete, brick and LEED-certified windows can all obstruct a strong cell signal that would otherwise provide solid connectivity and speed.
  • Restart your mobile device. If your phone is experiencing technical issues that are impacting your connection, a hard reset can sometimes address the issue.

If basic poor-signal remedies don’t work or the problem is chronic, consider a cell phone signal booster. These devices use what signal is available and amplifies it to help with connections and speeds on your device.

what causes slow downloads on your phone

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Education

Read our Consumer Guide to Cell Phone Signal Boosters.

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