Cellular network usage up 10-20%, operators tell FCC Chairman

AT&T said wireless voice minutes were up 41% April 1, compared to an average Wednesday. (Getty Images)

U.S. communications networks are generally “holding up quite well” to increased demand during the day and in more suburban areas as many Americans stay at home during the ongoing coronavirus crisis, the FCC said following a call with service providers, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon.  

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai spoke with representatives from major broadband and phone companies Wednesday to discuss the state of communications networks. According to the agency, the providers said they’ve seen increased demand and a shift to more usage during daytime hours and in suburban, exurban, and residential areas.

Cellular networks specifically saw usage rise between 10-20% in recent weeks, service providers across the country reported to Pai. Usage on fixed networks, meanwhile, increased 20-35%. It’s unclear if those figures are simply ranges reported by companies during the call, or were calculated in some other way.

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The increase though isn’t that surprising with broad awareness of more people working, learning and spending time at home, as large swaths of Americans are under stay-at-home orders and practicing social distancing measures while the country works to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Companies have also seen more customers relying on phone calls with Pai noting that some providers even referred to traditional voice service as “the new killer app.”

Operators like AT&T have been reporting major spikes in voice calls. In an April 1 network update, AT&T said wireless voice minutes were up 41% compared to an average Wednesday, while consumer home voice minutes were up 57%. Wi-Fi calling continued to surge as well, with usage minutes up 105% from a typical Wednesday.

Data on changes in voice and data traffic on a weekly basis compiled by CTIA, based on information from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon, show that on Monday (March 30) voice minutes increased by up to 19.3% and data 11.9%.  

RELATED: AT&T: Wi-Fi calling up 76%

Industry trade associations were also on the call with Pai, including CTIA, Competitive Carriers Association (CCA), Rural Wireless Association, Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), along with other cable and broadband groups.  

Most providers anticipate their networks will continue to perform well, and not a single operator signaled concern about the ability to withstand increased and shifting demand, according to Pai.

“It appears that our nation’s communications networks are holding up very well amid the increase in traffic and change in usage patterns…That said, we will continue to closely monitor the situation,” Pai said in a statement.

These sentiments echoed what he heard on a similar call held by U.S. President Trump Tuesday with major phone and broadband providers, the FCC said.   

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Service providers speaking to Pai indicated they'll continue to monitor hotspots in case peak traffic jumps unexpectedly and expressed “strong confidence in how well the network backbone was meeting the needs of increased demand.”

It’s unknown what kind of detail the operators went into on the call, as the agency’s release spoke generally about network performance. At least one FCC commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel, has been calling for the FCC to do more in terms of network performance reporting. 

On Tuesday Rosenworcel tweeted: “In other disasters- like a hurricane or power outage- the FCC reports daily how communications networks are faring. It should issue reports in this crisis too. A little transparency can go a long way and put the public at ease when so much of modern life has migrated online.”

She tweeted her stance again today, noting the agency itself acknowledged internal call issues due to high traffic volume.

 

In addition to the four major U.S. providers (which have now consolidated to three since T-Mobile closed its merger transaction with Sprint yesterday – though customers are still riding on the separate networks for the time being), other companies on the call with Pai included TDS Telecom, TracFone, Altice USA, CenturyLink, Charter, Cincinnati Bell, Consolidated Communications, Comcast, Cox, Dish, Frontier, Hughes, Mediacom, Northwest Fiber, ViaStat and Windstream.

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