U.S. operator AT&T has set up a dedicated website to provide tracking information about its network and services during the coronavirus crisis. In the latest update, the company said it saw a significant increase in video and voice traffic over the past weekend.
Overall, customers continue to make more voice calls than usual, AT&T said. Mobile voice calls were up 44 percent on 22 March compared to a normal Sunday, and Wi-Fi calling increased 88 percent on the same measure. Consumer home voice calls rose 74 percent compared to an average Sunday.
Traffic from Netflix hit all-time highs on Friday and Saturday and then dipped on Sunday. AT&T matched its record for peering traffic on 20 March, driven by the heavy video streaming traffic, it said, adding that it is able to manage this traffic flow effectively.
AT&T is also boosting Firstnet, its wireless network for first responders. The company deployed portable cell sites to bolster coverage for FirstNet customers in Indiana, Connecticut, New Jersey, California and New York.
Effective 13 March, AT&T has waived overage charges for 60 days on domestic mobile plans for both consumer and small business customers experiencing economic hardship related to the coronavirus pandemic.
AT&T’s tracking site is useful as an indicator of the effect that the coronavirus pandemic is having on mobile traffic and the strains that it could be placing on networks.
A major operator in a market that is both highly developed and in the grips of the virus outbreak—with the third-highest number of cases in the world after China and Italy—AT&T is a useful bellwether for the impact of the pandemic on MNOs. Social distancing and stay-at-home orders have caused users to make far more calls than usual, and video chats and video conferencing in particular have seen a surge, as ways to replace the experience of face-to-face contact. These trends affect both the consumer and business sectors.
While Wi-Fi calling is far from being universally adopted, it is easily understandable that AT&T has seen a big uptick in its use (88 percent), given that subscribers are spending uncharacteristically large amounts of time at home, where they have access to Wi-Fi. As for entertainment services such as Netflix, it is hardly surprising that use has risen dramatically since the social distancing began. The dip this past Sunday is likely not significant compared with the all-time highs registered in the two previous days.
These developments raise the question of whether operators’ networks can handle the increased traffic over the course of the next several weeks or even months. Operators are giving away free data to help customers get through the crisis, and measures such as AT&T’s forgiveness of overage charges only serve to encourage more data consumption. Although AT&T says it can manage the traffic, it may have to make adjustments at some point. In common with its competitors, it will have to boost network capacity by any means possible, and it may also have to restrict data speeds in some cases.