How wireless operators have risen to the COVID-19 challenge (Reader Forum)

 

Chief among the many shockwaves stemming from the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. is the country’s rapid transition to remote work. And with this disruption has come a dramatic transformation in the volume of wireless network traffic and in consumer connectivity habits and behavior: AT&T has reported surges across all key network categories since the end of February – core (business, home broadband and wireless) network traffic is up 28%, consumer home voice calling is 37% higher, wireless voice minutes are up 25% and Wi-Fi calling minutes have increased by 82%.

After European network outages in March, the eye-popping increase in U.S. wireless traffic has some questioning if network operators can meet current and future coronavirus-triggered demand. Supporting telework, telehealth, online learning and scores of other applications that have shifted from in-person to virtual is not just about traffic volume; it is a fundamental change in how we work, learn, play and ultimately, live. While the demands placed on network operators have been strenuous, early indications suggest they are rising to the challenge. Here’s how they’ve done it, and what it will take to continue to meet subscriber demand and consumer expectations.

Decades of strategic network investments

The ability to support network traffic increases isn’t an accident; it is instead a testament to investments made over the past four decades. Did wireless operators know a pandemic was coming? Of course not. But hardening and upgrading network infrastructure to lay the foundation for 5G and protect against disruptions has enabled networks to rise to today’s unprecedented challenge.   

In 1983, Ameritech (now AT&T) constructed the nation’s first commercial network in Chicago and started offering cellular services. Since that inception, networks have evolved over time from 1G to 2G, 3G, 4G and most recently to 5G. The operators’ main goal for these networks was to deliver reliable services to consumers.  As a result, they had to balance coverage and capacity demands, which, to this day, are still consistently growing due to the increased connectivity that accompanies consumers’ desire to use their devices everywhere they live, work and play.

In recent years, telecommunications providers in the United States have built on billions of dollars in historical network investments with new commitments to 5G technology and infrastructure to help deploy the latest iteration. 5G is poised to be incredibly efficient – far more so than its 4G predecessor – when it comes to network capacity and spectrum utilization. And for those speculating on whether the coronavirus pandemic will slow 5G investments, the opposite may in fact hold true. In March, Verizon announced it was lifting its estimated capital investment for 2020 by $500 million to speed 5G efforts. AT&T similarly indicated an intent to keep funds available for 5G and network enhancements. 

Carriers are tuned into subscriber preferences

For carriers to meet and exceed subscriber expectations, they must have a deep and real-time understanding of what consumers, well, expect. Based on our own survey of wireless subscribers, there is evidence that network operators are rightly focused on what matters most to consumers who now must telework, tele-learn and tele-live.  

First, consumers are more likely to prioritize network reliability over network speed. With ongoing sheltering-in-place measures, people are relying on their smartphones and wireless networks now more than ever to complete work tasks and maintain productivity levels and, as such, there is an imperative need for reliable coverage. Today, speed is simply not a top concern for consumers and, in fact, nearly three-quarters of those TNS surveyed say that their need for speed is met by network operators most or all of the time.  Instead, customers are much more focused (have placed higher importance) on network coverage – they want to consistently access the network wherever they try.

A second key takeaway from the 2019 survey was despite headlines proclaiming phone calls are a thing of the past, making or receiving phone calls remains the most used cell phone function. Voice traffic is up significantly throughout the quarantine period — wireless voice minutes are up 25%, according to AT&T — as people recognize the importance a phone call can have on business efficiency and staying connected to friends and family members.

Third, despite the home being the most popular spot for cell phone usage, only 25% of consumers are using Wi-Fi calling often. A large portion of the people surveyed last year — 32% — hadn’t even heard of Wi-Fi calling or how to turn it on. This cellular function has also undergone a drastic increase throughout the quarantine period – Wi-Fi calling minutes have increased by 82%. This increase buoys the first takeaway – consumers crave reliability. Wi-Fi calling is the perfect substitute for crowded networks or poor reception in employees’ apartments.

Carriers should be able to continue tracking these drastic increases throughout the quarantine period, which will double as valuable insights into what consumers really want from their cellular network.

Remain data-driven 

Due to COVID-19, the nation’s citizens are working, learning and living in ways that would be unfathomable to previous generations – let alone a few months ago. There are no more 9-5 jobs; working people now start their days earlier and end them later, all the while spending more time on their devices, and in some cases, breaking up their days to help kids with remote learning or simply go for a walk to get outside. 

Education, work, and healthcare appointments have all transitioned from in-person endeavors to online activities. Network operators can’t simply affix old rules and assumptions to new usage patterns. More Zooming and calling, along with communications at different times of the day and night factor into how operators manage network traffic. Maintaining network performance requires a data-driven approach to ensure connectivity is preserved and that consumers can work, and learn, how and when they want. If done correctly, our networks will enable consumers to maintain the way they live, work and play from the safety of their own home.

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