Gary Morrisroe

Coronavirus: Mobile comms finds its voice as usage patterns evolve

UK operators declare readiness of mobile networks as they enter uncharted water with millions of users displaced from offices during the working day

Almost a week after the UK government instructed all but non-essential staff to work from home because of Covid-19, new patterns of network usage are emerging reflecting the new reality of work on both wired and wireless networks.

A study from CCS Insight has found that, broadly speaking, networks are coping well. One of the main reasons for their robustness is that the explosion in fixed-line broadband traffic is mostly happening during the day. Network volumes usually peak in the evening, between about 8pm and 10pm.

Voice calls are becoming popular again. In the UK, O2 reported that average call duration had jumped by 40% in a week, while AT&T in the UK has seen a 44% increase in phone calls and in Poland, Orange says voice traffic is up 50%. At the same time, mobile data usage has already seen some substitution by fixed-line connections as masses work from home and connect smartphones to their domestic Wi-Fi networks.

Yet despite fixed and mobile operators being confident about the robustness of their networks, CCS warned that networks have shown some fallibility with mobile voice calls. The company said it had heard of several reports of dropped calls and diminished quality amid high volumes.

It added that mobile networks were also starting to play a wider role in supporting governments, for example the UK government sending text messages to keep the public updated on new developments in the coronavirus outbreak. CCS Insight said this was presenting some challenges as operators have not invested heavily in SMS in recent years because substitution by online platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger has seen messaging volumes fall dramatically.

Mobile data usage has enjoyed steady growth of between 20% and 50% in recent years, yet BT pointed to a small dip in recent weeks. A spokesperson for BT-owned mobile operator EE UK told Computer Weekly: “We are actually seeing a 5% decrease in mobile data traffic, as a lot of people are connecting their mobiles to their home Wi-Fi, rather than using the cellular network. Data usage is peaking at around 5pm, the time of the prime minister’s daily briefing, and mobile traffic is becoming more evenly distributed across the country as people travel into urban hubs less frequently.

“Also, roaming traffic is falling by about 10% a day, with a 55% drop over the last five days. We are seeing an increase in mobile voice call volumes, which is to be expected. This is well within the levels the network is built to handle, but we would encourage customers to use the landline or IP voice services like Skype as well, especially for long conference calls.”

Read more about Covid-19 and networking

Virgin Media has also recorded changing patterns in the number and length of landline calls. In recent days, the company has seen customers spend nearly twice as much time on their landline phones in the early evening as they did a week ago, with phone call minutes up by as much as 94%. And, like BT, Virgin has seen a commensurate dip in mobile data use as people spend more time at home.

In the week beginning 16 March, Virgin’s landline network saw large growth in demand, with voice call minutes up 80% week on week during the morning busy hour, peaking at 10am with about 2.5 million calls an hour.

Robert Finnegan, recently appointed CEO of Three UK, said on 24 March that the company had undertaken work to ensure availability. “We know our network is vital to keep our customers connected to both their loved ones and their work during this critical time,” he said. “To best support this and accommodate new growth and demand during these unprecedented times, all non-essential works have been put on hold to protect the stability of our network.

“We have also increased capacity on the network in order to address the increased data usage. We have already seen an increase in traffic since last week and we are closely monitoring the trends that are now the new norm and have business continuity planning in place to support our customers and growth in demand.”

Read more on Voice networking and VoIP

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