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Telecoms finds its voice traffic again in lockdown

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One thing coronavirus hasn’t killed is voice traffic – you know, picking up the phone, dialling and talking to someone.

If anything, it has delivered a renaissance to making telephone calls worldwide as more people than ever start talking to each other remotely thanks to lockdown.

And it isn’t just me that thinks so. Numerous studies and reports out over the past month all reinforce just how much traditional calling has surged, following five years of decline.

A recent study by Global Data points to how these voice calls have seen more growth in the past two months than in the same number of years.

According to the study, 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 calls.

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.

Meanwhile, UK operator O2 reported on 27 March that it had seen, since 16 March, 57% more voice calls at the busiest point of the day. Typically, it says, voice traffic increases 5% year on year, “and in a week we have experienced an increase of voice traffic comparable to nine years of regular demand,” says Brendan O’Reilly, CTO, O2.

Similarly, on 24 March, Telenor in Norway tweeted: “Traffic has increased sharply since the coronavirus was seriously registered in this country. 50% increase in mobile voice, 25% increase in mobile data and 30-40% increase in fixed broadband”.

Neighbouring Telia in Denmark also reported that (translated from original): “Thursday, March 12, the volume of speech in the network thus increased by 24% compared to the day before. Over the weekend 50% more was spoken – obviously due to a need to gain status on family and friends in the new situation. In the past working week, about 60% more has been spoken on the phone than on a normal week in March.”

And it isn’t just the quantity of voice that is going up, but also the quality time spent chatting the old-fashioned way.

GlobalData has identified that, while the number of mobile calls remains roughly constant, mobile call length has risen substantially.

This is backed up by O2. “This shift shows that as a country we are talking much more,” says o2 CTO O’Reilly. “On average customers are speaking to each other for approximately 40% longer. In these worrying times, it’s comforting to know that a medium that was becoming less popular with the huge proliferation of data services, is actually as important as ever.”

And traffic patterns are changing as well, O’Reilly says. “Previously our voice traffic peak has been at 6pm, but over the last few days, we are seeing a shift to around 11am-12pm, possibly as children connect and learn in new ways online and people work from home during the day.”

Why the new interest in voice?

The reasons why more people are voice calling are myriad. The lockdown has naturally put people more in a position to have to talk using devices, as any face-to-face meeting is out the question.

However, with so many methods of communicating at our finger tips, why are we seeing such a resurgence in simply picking up the phone and calling?

One of the simplest reasons is that mobile voice – and test messaging, for that matter – are more convenient than PC-based communication. There is still a bit of rigmarole in firing up zoom and setting up a meeting. With a call you just pick up and dial. For scheduled chats there are all sorts of platform; when you just want to ask a quick question, there’s the blower.

There is also the issue of congestion too. With so many more people using the web to communicate during lockdown, quality is suffering as the bandwidth gets choked. Cellular networks provide 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.

According to Andy Hicks, Principal Analyst at GlobalData, 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.

O2’s O’Reilly agrees: “Our engineers are working around the clock to give our customers the connectivity they need to maintain vital contact with the outside world as many of us remain at home, and this is a key customer behaviour that has understandably changed since the advent of the pandemic.”

He adds: “Shifts in human behaviour lead to shifts in network traffic so as a team, we’ve rapidly adjusted our focus not only to respond, but also to anticipate our customers’ new needs. Our data network traffic has remained relatively stable during the pandemic, although obviously, customers are using data in different places that they usually would. The biggest shift in behaviours that we’ve seen is an unprecedented surge in voice traffic.”

The new face of voice

GlobalData’s Hicks agrees: “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.”

Then there is the simple fact that, making a phone call, means that you can chat without having to check-out your lockdown hairdo in the thumbnail that appears in the right-hand corner of the screen on most chat platforms.

Sure. You can turn off the camera, but then people get suspicious that you have no clothes on. Yet having the thumb nail staring back at you is starting to get on my nerves – I am sure it is to everyone.

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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