COVID-19: As Nations Stay at Home, Mobile Voice Makes a Return

Principal Analyst, Global Telecom Technology and Software

Summary Bullets:

• Even as COVID-19 keeps everyone at home, mobile voice and messaging use have risen across the board.

• The increase in mobile voice traffic underlines its continued value in an era of over-the-top collaboration applications.

As most of the United States and Canada has joined Europe in a period of strict travel restrictions and work-from-home arrangements, network loads are changing in the ways one would expect: conferencing tools, streaming media, and gaming are driving huge increases in home broadband usage. But traditional mobile services are also exploding: AT&T reports that mobile voice minutes are up anywhere from 25-41% compared to an average (pre-COVID-19) day. Even mobile text messaging has increased around 40% compared to the period before the crisis. In Spain, mobile operators banded together to ask customers to shift their calls to landlines after a 50% rise in mobile calls.

In a period when far fewer people are leaving home, why are mobile voice and messaging volumes going up? It seems counterintuitive at first blush; after all, the morning and evening commuter peaks have disappeared and many customers presumably have access to landline or VoIP service at home. Judging from the traffic reports issued by various operators and collaboration providers, we can guess that at least some of the following factors are in play:

• Mobile voice and messaging are more convenient than PC-based communication, even when users are stuck at home

• The mobile phone’s directory of contacts naturally leads users to choose the mobile phone to place the call

• The cellular network provides an alternate connectivity pool when the IP network is strained

• Some workers are using their mobiles to call in to conferences while their family uses home internet (Orange reports that the length of calls has gone up while the number has remained constant)

• In areas where VoLTE (4G voice) are enabled, mobile may provide higher call quality than many VoIP tools

The current crisis has shown that mobile voice is still a vitally important communication channel, one that becomes more important in a crisis. Fortunately for mobile operators, voice does not present significant demands on overall bandwidth. Even so, many reported capacity constraints early in their countries’ respective lockdown periods. Most of these bottlenecks appear to have been in the interconnects among national operators; fortunately, those can often be fixed fairly quickly via software configuration. By all accounts, the ongoing industry migration of voice traffic from 2G and 3G networks to VoLTE has not caused any problems during this spike in usage.

The resurgence of mobile voice and messaging in the current pandemic shows that they are still valued services, even given myriad over-the-top competitors. Carriers should keep this value in mind as they design and tune their networks. Collaboration providers should also take another look at carrier voice: those that integrate their services with the carrier’s mobile voice and messaging – and those that use the phone’s own dialer in their device clients (e.g., Metaswitch) – may find that the resulting increased ease of use and reliability provide them a competitive advantage.

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