The Resurgence of Voice

One of the most interesting outcomes of the COVID-19 crisis has been a huge resurgence of telephone calls. While broadband usage is up 40% or more in some markets, the volumes of traditional voice calls have skyrocketed.

Verizon says it’s now seeing an average of 800 million calls per day, which is double the number of calls made on the last Mother’s Day. Verizon also says the average length of calls has increased by one-third over recent averages. AT&T is seeing similarly increased volumes of cellular calls which are up 35%. They have also seen the volume of WiFi calls made using home broadband on cellphones double in recent weeks. The carriers said they are handling the volumes of calls well and have only had to make a few network adjustments. I’m quoting these statistics from Cecelia Kang in the New York Times, but I’ve been hearing a few similar stories from my smaller clients as well.

Voice has been on a steady decline for years, particularly with young people who communicate by texting or by the use of apps like WhatsApp. There are plenty of kids who will tell you they rarely use their phone to initiate phone calls. There was a time when my daughter was a teenager that it seemed like torture to expect her to talk on the phone.

But the COVID-19 crisis has turned the way we communicate on its ear. People need to call a lot more as part of working from home. Conversations that were done by walking down the hall now need to be done phone or computer.

I’ve been on a lot of computer meetings and calls in the last few weeks. I happen to have decent broadband and the quality of Zoom or GoToMeeting works great at my end, but I’ve connected to a lot of people who are struggling with poor quality broadband. A lot of people are connecting into computer meetings by phone out of necessity. The carriers report that the biggest surge in voice traffic is now in the daytime, which has historically been the time when phone traffic from residential neighborhoods was at its lowest. Call volumes now seem to have surged because of remote working.

A lot of the surge of voice traffic likely comes from people reaching out to friends and relatives they can no longer visit. I’ve seen a big increase in solo walkers in my neighborhood who are getting out of the house by taking a walk. The big majority of walkers are now talking as they walk – something that used to be fairly rare.

Most people are surprised to hear that over 40% of homes still have a traditional landline. Many households have ditched landlines completely for cellphones over the last decade. A number of homes with landlines have no choice because they live in areas with poor or no cellular coverage. These households are worried every time they hear something bad about their carrier, like with the recently announced Frontier bankruptcy. While many homes are struggling with poor broadband connections when being forced to stay home, there are millions of homes with no broadband and for whom the traditional landline is their only connection to the world. Many of these people have commuted to places where cellphones work and where the office has broadband, and being stuck at home with only a landline is a throwback to the days before dial-up.

It’s almost certain that voice volumes won’t stay this high after the end of the crisis. However, voice calling probably also won’t revert quickly to old volumes. I think there are likely to be a lot of people who will continue to work from home. I’ve been hearing from folks who say they’ve never been so productive before and will continue to work at home more when the crisis is over. I know that’s what drove me to work from home years ago.

We’ll probably adopt new habits. Young people who are calling and talking to family now might continue to do so when the crisis is over. People who have reconnected with old friends or began talking to existing friends daily by phone might continue to do so. This will all be made easier if the FCC is successful in finally tamping down the volume of nuisance calls we all get.

For the most part, this is a temporary situation, a throwback to the old days when the family phone was in use for most of each evening. It’s interesting to those of us who grew up in the voice business to see this resurgence.

Retiring the Copper Networks

telephone cablesAttached is a copy of FCC Docket DA-14-1272 where Verizon is asking to discontinue copper service in the towns of Lynnfield, MA, Farmingdale, NJ, Belle Harbor, NY, Orchard Park, NY, Hummelstown, PA and Ocean View, VA. In this docket the FCC is asking for public comments before it will consider the request.

In these particular towns Verizon is claiming that almost all of the households are already served by fiber and they are seeking to move the remaining households to fiber so they can disconnect and discontinue the use of the copper networks there. And perhaps if there are only five percent of lines left on copper in these towns that might be a reasonable request by Verizon. But this does prompt me to talk about the whole idea of discontinuing older copper networks, because both Verizon and AT&T have said that they would like to eliminate most of their copper by 2020.

In the case of Verizon it’s a tall order to get rid of all copper because they still have 4.9 million customers on copper with 5.5 million customers that have been moved to fiber. AT&T has a much larger problem since they don’t use fiber to serve residential customers except in a few rare cases. But both big carriers have made it a priority to get people off copper.

Many customers are unhappy with the idea of losing their copper and many have complained that they are getting a lot of pressure from the big telcos to drop their copper. There are numerous Verizon customers who say they are contacted monthly to get off the copper and they feel like they are being harassed. There are a few different issues to consider when talking about this topic.

Not everybody that loses copper will get fiber. Of the big telcos only Verizon even owns a residential fiber network. But even the Verizon FiOS network doesn’t go everywhere and they are not expanding the fiber network to new neighborhoods. For customers that live where there is no fiber, the goal is to move them to a DSL-based service or, in the case of AT&T to cellular phones.

Interestingly when a telco moves a customer from POTs (Plain Old Telephone Service) on copper to VoIP on DSL the telco will keep using the identical old copper wires. They will have changed the technology being used from analog to digital. But more importantly in most cases they will have changed the customers from being on a regulated product to an unregulated one. And that is one of the primary thrusts to get people off POTs.

POTs service is fully covered by a slew of regulations that are aimed at protecting consumers, such as carrier-of-last-resort obligations that require telcos to connect anybody who asks for service.  But in most states those same protections don’t apply to VoIP or fiber service. The most important right that customers lose with VoIP are the capped prices, meaning that the prices for VoIP or fiber service could be raised at any time by any amount. And the carrier-of-last-resort obligations have real-life impact even for existing customers. If a customer is late paying their bill on a VoIP network, Verizon would be within their rights to refuse to connect them back to service when they pay.

There are customers who want to stay on POTs on copper for various reasons. One reason is that POTs phones are powered by the copper network and so they keep working when the power goes out. There are still parts of the country where the power goes out regularly or where there is a reasonable expectation of hurricanes or ice storms. For example, houses that still had copper could make calls for up to a week after hurricane Sandy.

Another reason to keep copper is for security and medical monitoring. The copper POTs network has always been very reliable. But it is much more common for households to lose Internet service. Once a phone is converted to VoIP, then any time the Internet is down for a customer then their security and medical monitoring services that use those phones don’t work.

The FCC is going to be flooded with requests like this one to disconnect people from POTs. Certainly the copper networks are getting old. There might be merit for disconnecting copper in towns that are almost entirely fiber and where the customer losing POTs will move to fiber. In most cases fiber seems to be as reliable as copper, although it cannot power the phones when the electricity goes out.

But it seems somewhat ludicrous for the FCC to approve shuttling people from POTs to DSL while still using the same old copper lines. That clearly is being done as way to avoid regulation and customer protections and not for the carrier to save money. And it is clearly not in the customer’s best interest to move customers from POTs to cellular.