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EDITORIAL Voice: an unlikely winner from the lockdown?

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While gaming and ecommerce have garnered many of the headlines as winners in the shift in consumer habits during the coronavirus pandemic, voice traffic has sneakily seen itself get a massive boost too.

Analysis by electronic payments company ACI Worldwide shows retail sales online are up 209%, gaming up 126% and digital downloads up 26%, as the headline winners so far from the lockdown. However, separate study by Global Data points to how voice traffic has seen more growth in the past two months than in the same number of years.

According to Global Data, in both the US and Spain – countries at either end of the lockdown spectrum, Spain tight, US not so much – there has been a marked uptick in mobile voice minutes.

AT&T reports that mobile voice minutes are up anywhere from 25 to 41% compared to an average – pre-COVID-19 – day, while in Spain, mobile operators banded together to ask customers to shift their calls to landlines after a 50% rise in mobile calls.

In fact, GlobalData has identified that, while the number of mobile calls remains roughly constant, mobile call length has risen substantially. Mobile voice and messaging are more convenient than PC-based communication, and the cellular network provides an alternate connectivity pool when the IP network is strained. Even though mobile networks are in the midst of a technical transition to enable 5G calling, they have been able to fix voice capacity bottlenecks quickly.

Andy Hicks, Principal Analyst at GlobalData, explains: “A third of the world’s population is stuck at home, yet mobile phone calling has increased during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Classic text messaging has also increased – even with competing with free voice and message channels.”

This is unexpected, but welcome, news and yet another surprise trend kicked up by COVID-19. Indeed, you have to go back to 2014 to see voice traffic growth. 2015 marked a turning point in the international voice market. It was the first time since the Great Depression that international call traffic declined, even if only by one half percent.

And it’s been downhill ever since, with carriers’ traffic falling from 2015 – which saw the first drop in international call volumes since the Great Depression – and then a further 9% in 2017 and then another 4% in 2018, dropping to a total of 465 billion minutes by 2018.

There’s more to voice than OTT

Of course, OTT voice traffic has boomed – and it is this that has taken ‘traditional’ voice calls away from carriers. According to the TeleGeography Report and Database published this March, international OTT voice traffic reached 1 trillion minutes in 2019, compared to just 432 billion minutes of international carrier traffic – and that is before we all started Skyping on lockdown.

“International carrier voice revenue is being directly impacted by the availability of free OTT services and changing user behaviours. Over the last 20 years, social calling has replaced business communications as the primary driver for international long-distance minutes volumes. OTTs have only accelerated what affordable mobile phones started in the early 2000s,” says Paul Brodsky, Senior Analyst at TeleGeography.

TeleGeography estimates that just seven communications apps—WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, QQ, Viber, Line, and KakaoTalk—combined for over 5 billion monthly users in September 2019. Both WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger topped 1.3 billion monthly active users in 2019, and WeChat had just over an estimated 1 billion active users in September 2019.

But there is more to life than OTT services and their shortcomings have been exposed during lockdown.

The new face of voice – and it isn’t in a thumbnail

So, what has happened to bring back carrier voice traffic? Well, the pandemic has had a massive impact on consumers’ habits across all facets of live and, under strict lockdown conditions, communications in all its rich forms has become almost as important as breathing.

According to Global Data’s Hicks, it is because there is so much digital activity happening across the web during lockdown, that IP networks are getting strained – and so consumers are turning to good old-fashion phone calls over phone networks to stay in touch when their Zoom/Skype/FaceTime et al judders to a pixelated halt.

Voice network operators have years of practice at fixing voice bottlenecks and so have been able to service the need perhaps better than some ISPs. Be honest, how many times recently have you given up on Skype and just made a voice call? I know I have.

Equally, with a nice voice call – on mobile or, if you still have one, a landline, you also don’t have to sit and stare at a thumbnail of yourself sitting starting at a thumbnail of yourself in the top right-hand corner.

Chatting is much easier for many of us without the distraction of seeing yourself – especially with a lockdown hairdo that really isn’t for public consumption. This is a small, but significant, reason why voice is on the up.

Will the move to voice calls last? Probably not – there may be a residual hardcore who have rediscovered voice over a PSTN or its mobile equivalent that will slowly ebb away once things return to their new normal.

However, it should give MNOs impetus to look at what they can do with their voice services in the 5G future.

 

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