How Your Carrier Can Make Your Smartphone Dumb & What You Can Do

Christian Cawley 10-04-2013

problems with cell phone companiesLooking for contacts on my wife’s Android phone this morning, I was astonished at how slow the process had become. After eventually creaking through the menu for the details I needed, I switched the device off and back on. A short wait ensued, followed by another. Ceri isn’t a habitual app user, and her phone remains unmodded, so what could have been causing these performance delays. And then it struck me. The problem wasn’t with Android.


With a processor offering over 1 GHz of power, awesome graphics and storage of around 16 GB (more often than not), your smartphone should be capable of so much more. So why isn’t it? Why are your friends with the same device easily able to browse the web or perform very basic tasks in the blink of an eye? The problem, dear reader, is not with your phone. It’s with your carrier.

Why Is Your Carrier Making Your Smartphone Dumb?

One of the main reasons why your extremely expensive portable computer and communications device is under-performing is that your carrier or network has configured it that way. There are usually five ways in which carriers limit your smartphone experience, bloatware, branding, SIM locking, speed throttling and a lack of updates.

Now, you might be one of the millions to put up with this state of affairs, and if that’s the case then fine. But if you spend hundreds of dollars on your smartphone, or are paying out big bucks every month on a contract, then the least that you should expect is to be able to enjoy the full functionality of the device without worrying about performance issues, cost and slow network connections. It would also be nice to be able to use your phone without having the name of your unnecessarily dictatorial carrier emblazoned across it.

Speak to Your Carrier First

There are several ways in which you can work around the problems described above, and we’ll come to them below.

First, though, you should make a brief list of the problems that your phone experiences (and that you’re not happy about) and contact your carrier to see if there is anything that they can do. As surprising as it might seem, they might have changed their policy regarding bloatware or SIM locking, for instance, and be happy to have you visit one of their outlets or send you a replacement phone in order to experience the handset in a far more positive way.

I once received a SIM-unlocked replacement from a local mobile network store, so this is an option that you can look at. The other issues might also be resolved by speaking to your carrier.

If this doesn’t work for you, however, then it is time to consider taking matters into your own hands.

Battling The Bloatware

Typically an Android problem (Apple doesn’t allow bloatware on its devices), bloatware is the addition by the carrier of its own software.

Usually poorly written or not optimised for the device it is installed on, bloatware can drain resources and generally make your smartphone experience totally dumb.

problems with cell phone companies

There are several ways around this, such as installing a new ROM How to Find and Install a Custom ROM for Your Android Device Android is super customizable, but to fully take advantage of that, you need to flash a custom ROM. Here's how to do that. Read More (a version of Android without the bloatware, designed specifically to run on your phone), rooting How To Root Your Android Phone With SuperOneClick Read More and uninstalling the culprit apps or disabling the bloat. The first two suggestions are quite extreme, especially if you’re not experienced with such things, so a good way to check whether or not the phone can run more quickly is to disable the pre-installed apps that are slowing you down.

This can be done in Android Jelly Bean by opening Settings > Device > Apps and using the Force Stop option. After the app has stopped, check your phone’s performance for any improvement. If this doesn’t have any effect, you can use the Disable option (in some rare occasions, the Uninstall button appears to remove some bloatware, although this is usually prevented). If neither option is available, then you should consider rooting as your solution.

Remember that as well as taking up much needed resources, bloatware offers an additional attach vector for malware. You probably don’t need the bloatware provided by your carrier, and if you do you will be able to find a much better alternative.

Baffling Branding

The chances are that you know that you’re paying AT&T, Verizon or EE $50 a month for the pleasure of using a phone on their network, so it’s pretty rum of them to brand your phone in order to remind you.

Smartphone branding comes in different forms: you might have a badge for your network carrier displayed on the device or be greeted with an AT&T splash screen and a pre-selected background image once the smartphone boots.

smartphone carriers

On an iPhone you can remove the name of your carrier using a tool such as CarrierEditor (Mac) or CustomCarrierLogo. These are desktop apps that make it easy to edit branding names and images without jailbreaking your iPhone.

For Android users, either installing a stock or custom ROM or manually editing some XML data will enable the removal of the carrier name (as this XDA-Developers thread explains), while splash screen branding is usually only possible by rooting the device and then browsing for and removing the image file. Of course, you won’t know what this is called, so it might involve some trial and error. Note that flashing a custom ROM might not necessarily remove branding graphics.

Dealing With Slow Connections

Another way in which carriers limit your ability to get the full use from your smartphone is by restricting the amount of data that you can use, or the speed of the mobile Internet connection.

smartphone carriers

Probably the easiest way of overcoming this problem is to rely on wireless data, perhaps a free account with a local coffee shop or shopping mall, or by using your own home Wi-Fi.

You should also check the settings of your phone to confirm that it is configured to connect to the fastest available network. Some 3G and 4G phones ship with this feature disabled, resulting in 2G speeds.

If speed problems cannot be resolved by reconfiguring your smartphone, it might be time to consider using a different SIM card.

Why Is My Phone SIM Locked?

The chances are that if you have purchased your smartphone through a carrier on a contract, the SIM card will be locked to that phone. This means that if you wish to use another SIM card, you can’t.

smartphone carriers

Carrier’s lock phones to their own SIM cards for various reasons. Many of these they benefit from, such as calls from overseas while you travel.

If you’re canny enough to discover that a different SIM card can offer better connectivity, then you will probably want to change your SIM card. What will probably happen upon doing this is that you will receive a message such as “SIM not recognised”, indicating that the phone is locked to your carrier.

There are a couple of ways around this. The first is to call your carrier and ask them to unlock it. This might be done for a fee or for free, depending on how long you have had the device (six months is the usual paid-to-free cut-off point.)

Meanwhile, you might also consider taking advantage of one of the many unlock services that can be found on the web or via eBay. This requires that you share your IMEI number with a strange, and is therefore something that you should consider carefully beforehand, as this information can be used to clone your phone (with expensive consequences…).

(Note also that differences in SIM card size can limit your ability to swap cards between phones. Be aware that a SIM card can be trimmed down to Micro SIM proportions The Secret To Making Your Own Micro SIM Card With the arrival of the iPad, micro SIMs have become commonplace for anyone wishing to connect to the mobile web from a tablet device. More and more mobile phone handsets are also using these chips... Read More .)

Hey, Carrier, Where’s My Update?

One final way in which carriers limit your phone’s capabilities is by being horrifically slow to issue updates.

The situation isn’t so bad for iPhone, but for Android and Windows Phone, update dissemination is one of modern technology’s greatest failings. Various reasons exist for these issues, such as an inability to handle demand and the need to install yet more bloatware on the update before it is issued.

problems with cell phone companies

For these reasons alone, Android users should be considering installing a stock or custom ROM of the update. Windows Phone users should look for a way to speed up/force the update on their devices, while iPhone owners should be able to grab their updates – and the addition of new features that make a smartphone even smarter – by launching iTunes.

Conclusion – Don’t Let The Carrier Dumb You Down

Smartphones are about functionality, about tools and features that can enhance your life. By restricting your ability to use your phone effectively, carriers are preventing you from making the most of your phone.

Bloatware is probably the greatest offender (although SIM locking comes close, in my opinion), but given that a user has launched a civil action against Microsoft for loading bloatware on its Surface tablet (see TechDirt for more), perhaps the tide is finally beginning to turn.

Image Credits: SIM Card via Shutterstock, Updating phone via Shutterstock, Slow phone via Shutterstock, Branded smartphone

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  1. James
    April 18, 2013 at 4:53 am

    an update to Ice Cream Sandwich has made my phone almost unusable, so not all updates are worth getting. HTC Thunderbolt, was a great phone, now if I am doing anything with the phone and someone calls (the very thing a phone is for) by the time it switches to the phone and I can answer, the call has gone to voicemail - calling back can take as long as 20 minutes and often requires a restart - seems like a clever way to force an upgrade - my contract is up and until the update the phone was trouble free

  2. Kevin Lee
    April 16, 2013 at 3:27 am

    Thank you for this article I recently had an issue with my sprint galaxy 2 network upload.

  3. Stephanie Staker
    April 13, 2013 at 4:44 am

    Thanks, Christian, for the info. I am a new smartphone user so I read everything I can get my hands on that has to do with them. I just learned a week or so ago what "jail breaking" a phone is. After doing research, I decided to pass on that. Yep, there are tons of apps out there for a "broken" phone but I want to keep my warranty intact. :) I didn't realize that some apps can carry malware with them either. Good reason to stick with what I've got.

  4. Keith Swartz
    April 12, 2013 at 7:11 am

    Yeah, the carrier is ALWAYS [or so it seems] seeking ways to 'dumb-down' us, the subscriber. Thanks for the article. It is very good & very useful.

  5. Susan
    April 11, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    I have a Samsung Galaxy S3 with AT&T running Android 4.1.1. I have tried turning off some of the apps, but they keep turning themselves back on. When I notice the phone getting slow, I press/hold the home button, press the pie chart, then click on the RAM icon up on the tool-bar up top. This allows me to clear the memory, which sometimes closes down over 50 apps! Is there a web-site or forum that tells you what apps are necessary to run and which ones that I can safely turn off? I am specifically curious about All Share and Chat on?
    Also, I used to be able to clear the browser cache and cookies with my old Blackberry, but can't figure out how to do this on the Galaxy. Do you have to use ATT Yahoo as the browser? Is it possible to use another browser as the default, one which I can actually adjust the settings on? Do I have to download a different browser?

    • Christian Cawley
      April 12, 2013 at 7:40 am

      Hi Susan - you could probably find out about the apps you really need via the forum, where you'll find a board dedicated to your phone.

      Clearing the cache should be straightforward, via the menu button in the browser, then Settings > Privacy & Security.

      You can use other browsers of course, such as Dolphin or Firefox.

  6. Marianne Martin
    April 11, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    We can't put on facebook as their is an error. The message says, "The post's link must directto the applications connect or canvas Url".

  7. Onaje Asheber
    April 11, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    The Info Is good. I did not know SIM Cards can be cut down! I have card that I would love to have unlocked. Thanks.

  8. Meredith
    April 11, 2013 at 3:06 pm

    How can I tell if the apps are bloatware versus something my phone needs?

    • Tina Sieber
      April 19, 2013 at 9:09 pm

      Your phone doesn't *need* any apps to run. However, before you uninstall something randomly, search Google to find out what the app is supposed to do or whether it could be useful for you. Maybe you are using it without knowing. However, you can always re-install an app if you find out you do need it.

  9. Chris Marcoe
    April 11, 2013 at 4:39 am

    Where is the best place to look for custom/stock ROM? (Does MUO have a tutorial or article about it?)

    How do I know what is bloatware and what is needed? (Do I really need 5 different apps for the Google store? Music, movies, sounds, others?)

    Do you have any tips to keep from voiding the guarantee? Do any of these void the guarantee?

    What is the best way to get an update? And how do you find out if your carrier is one that is slow to push them out?

    This is a great article. And this is certainly something that I have an issue with. I've always thought my phone was slow. I always figures it was Smart phone and Dumb user. Now, you've given power to the people and its time to get into an uproar about. (Ok, not an uproar, but at least look into a custom ROM.) And thank you for the info...

    • Christian Cawley
      April 11, 2013 at 7:01 am

      Hi Chris. Probably the best place to find a custom or stock ROM is XDA Developers, where you will find a board for pretty much any Android phone you can think of. Adding a custom ROM can void the guarantee, but installing the stock ROM for that device in the event of having to return it should get around this.

      You certainly don't need multiple apps to open Google Play. Checking whether your carrier is slow to push updates can be done via Google - simply search for "phone+carrier name+Google update version" to find out what the situation is. As there are so many carriers and devices it is difficult to list them in one place.

      Thanks for your thoughts, Chris!

    • Djinn
      May 4, 2013 at 7:35 pm

      Xda is a great place to start, and it's a pretty simple process. Backup, root, recovery mode, wipe, flash, reboot. Cyanogenmod is, to me, the best rom out there.

      Make sure sure sure you backup before you flash!

      I also recommend downloading adt and having that installed on your pc. If something goes wrong it will give you another way in.
      (My phone froze, I pulled the battery and it bootlooped, and won't go into recovery. I don't have a pc right now. So I'm sol!)