Americans want to talk to each other. Initial stats from wireless providers are showing that coronavirus-related lockdowns are resulting in a huge spike in home voice calling and in Wi-Fi calling on cell phones, as Americans reach out to their friends and family. So far, though, unlike in the UK and Canada, we haven’t seen any major calling-related outages in the US.
The rise in home internet use and voice calling hasn’t come with a similar spike in LTE data traffic, though, as you’d expect. People just aren’t out and about.
This jibes with news from the UK, where voice calls spiked so much that they clogged up the systems that connect providers, leading to downtime. Traditional voice calls (as opposed to third-party apps like WhatsApp or FaceTime) are typically handled by proprietary systems within the carriers, which guarantee their low latency and quality of service. Those systems can clog up even if the network as a whole is not overloaded.
Looking at Sunday, March 22, AT&T says that wireless voice calls were up 44 percent versus a normal Sunday, landline voice calls were up 74 percent, and Wi-Fi calling was up 88 percent—showing that an unusual number of AT&T subscribers’ phones were connected to home Wi-Fi, not out making mobile calls. AT&T’s network is hitting “record highs” in peering traffic, especially to video streaming sites like Netflix, but the carrier is “manag[ing] this traffic flow effectively,” a spokeswoman said.
Verizon says it’s seeing an increase in Fios home usage, a rise in SMS messaging and the duration of voice calls, and a decrease in mobile handoffs, meaning people are moving around less.
Sprint says there’s been an increase in its overall mobile network usage, but that voice and messaging are especially up, by 20 and 25 percent, respectively.
And it seems some people are feeling the pinch. This thread from Marketplace reporter Molly Wood is full of people starting to complain that their voice calls and MMS messages are having trouble or are delayed. It’s anecdotal, but it may reflect real strain on the voice calling systems.
Michael Goldstein, chief revenue officer at virtual carrier Ting, which touts its flexible service plans, said he’s seeing voice calling up and data usage down as well, which may suggest you should look at a cheaper mobile service plan for these stationary months.
“People are using less cellular data and making more phone calls and sending more texts (SMS). While unlimited data was a great idea in the lives we were living a few weeks ago and talk and text seemed irrelevant, people can save themselves a lot of money by quickly adjusting their plan to their new realities,” he said.
Internet Speeds Begin to Decline
New data from our sibling company Ookla Speedtest shows that fixed and mobile broadband speeds in the US and Canada have begun to decline under the strain of the new work-and-school-from-home lifestyle, but the situation hasn’t gotten dire yet.
Broadband speeds in both the US and Canada declined slightly in the past week, Speedtest results show, but only to a level matching the usage-heavy Christmas week (when a lot of people are with their families streaming video and playing games.
Looking specifically at Seattle, San Francisco, and Westchester, New York—three virus hotspots—Ookla is seeing similar results, with slight, not dramatic declines.
There are other points of failure in theiInternet system beyond the raw pipes Ookla is measuring. Video conferencing servers or Netflix distribution points could be overloaded, for instance, or, as we saw in the UK, the specific systems that transmit voice calls could hit capacity. (Traditional voice calls are treated differently by mobile networks than other data traffic.)
Still though, for now, the internet is holding up. If you know someone who needs access to the internet for work or school, take a look at our list of free and cheap resources for US residents and Canadians.