The coronavirus has led to an overall increase in mobile usage
COVID-19 is on its way out of Australia, but it’s leaving behind some lingering effects. During the height of the outbreak, the government had to take certain social distancing measures to keep the virus from spreading, which meant most Australians had to stay home.
Staying at home led to an increased reliance on mobile phones to communicate with loved ones, and even to work. Other devices like Smart TVs and computers saw increased usage as well.
But does the increase in mobile usage mean we’re making more voice calls than usual, or is it more of an increase in data usage?
Telcos blame network congestion on spike in voice calls
Phone calls were once the norm, but that began dying off in the past decade as data and SMS options took over. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, half of all phone calls were ignored for various reasons.
But at the height of the coronavirus outbreak, telcos began to experience higher voice calls in network traffic. In fact, back in March, when both Telstra and Optus saw network outages, Telstra attributed the cause to a twenty-fold increase in voice calls to government phone numbers.
Australia isn’t alone in this sudden voice call spike. Research conducted by i3forum Insights concluded that International voice traffic increased globally by 20 percent year-on-year in March, correlating with most stay-at-home measures around the world. However, the researchers pointed out that the number of calls went back to normal around April, but even then, there was an increase in the duration of phone calls.
Clearly, COVID-19 has changed the way Australians behave, as well as people in other parts of the world. With more businesses adopting the work-from-home model to stem the spread of the virus, it should be expected that more voice calls will follow. The same expectation should hold for those who simply want to keep in touch with loved ones while observing social distancing.
Data usage has also increased
But voice calls are just one side of the story – Australians have also increased their data consumption. While voice calls were rare during pre-COVID-19 times, WhatsApp messages, social media, streaming and other data activities were the norm. And as stay-at-home measures were implemented, those activities increased as well.
In fact, back in March, Netflix and YouTube reduced the bit rate for their content. That meant users would stream video content at lower qualities than before, which would in turn reduce the amount of data used. This was in anticipation of heavy data traffic during lockdown measures worldwide, which could have significantly impacted the quality of telcos’ networks.
But even with that, telcos still experienced close to a 70 percent spike in traffic between 9am and 5pm, indicating more Australians streaming heavily during the daytime, long before peak hours. And now, Netflix and YouTube have increased their bit rate back to normal, and telcos are bracing for a larger spike that could cause network congestion. A 35 percent spike during peak hours over the last couple of weeks has already been reported.
Data usage increases will likely last longer than any voice call increases. In fact, i3forum Insights reported that the voice calls went back to normal in April, notwithstanding their increase in duration.
But this doesn’t mean the spike in voice calls aren’t significant – they, in fact, might be more significant than data increases. For one, voice traffic needs more bandwidth than data traffic, and this makes an increase in voice calls more impactful on networks than data increases. They are more likely to create congestion and lead to outages, as we saw back in March with Telstra and Optus when calls to the government’s 13 and 1800 numbers spiked.
As far as data is concerned, there has been support to ease the strain on networks. Even though Netflix and YouTube have increased bit rates to normal, Netflix has indicated that they would reduce bit rates again if network congestion occur. Telcos are also getting help from the NBN which provided them an additional 40 percent of bandwidth at no extra cost in March, and extended it till August.