T-Mobile tracks ‘dramatic’ spike in messaging, launches low-cost phone plan

T-Mobile has tracked shifting mobile trends across its network over the last two weeks, including spikes in messaging and more subscribers with limited mobility, that align with changes to daily life many Americans are experiencing during the COVID-19 outbreak.

T-Mobile President of Technology Neville Ray, in a Tuesday blog post, provided a few data points, and said “messaging is up dramatically,” with a 26% bump in SMS texting and a 77% spike in MMS that including pictures and group text messages.

The amount of time T-Mobile customers spent on the phone over the last two weeks also increased, up 17% nationwide. AT&T and Verizon each said wireless voice usage increased recently as people connected remotely instead of face to face. Verizon recorded a 10% jump in wireless voice, with call duration increasing by 15%. AT&T over the weekend said wireless calls were up 44% on March 22, compared to usage on a normal Sunday.

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This doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise, as multiple states have ordered non-essential businesses to close, with more people working from home and practicing social distancing guidelines as the novel coronavirus crisis continues to evolve in the U.S. 

T-Mobile network data shows that more Americans appear to be heeding government and health officials’ advice to stay home to help curb the outbreak’s spread. In New York City, Ray said T-Mobile has seen an 86% increase in subscribers with limited mobility, “meaning they connect to cell sites only in their primary location.”

New York is one of the locations hit hardest in the U.S. by the COVID-19 outbreak, with nearly 20,940 confirmed novel coronavirus cases as of Tuesday morning, according to tracking by Reuters based on state and local official websites. That’s followed by New Jersey with a little more than 2,800 cases and California and Washington, each with about 2,200 confirmed cases as of early March 24.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, T-Mobile’s seen a 77% increase in limited subscriber mobility, and Ray noted there are similar patterns across the country.

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As people spend time inside, other T-Mobile network trends include more gaming time, with a 45% increase in video game traffic, along with a 38% bump in smartphone mobile hotspot usage as customers use cellular data to connect to devices like laptops and tablets in the home.

T-Mobile this week also launched its lowest-cost smartphone plan, T-Mobile Connect, ahead of schedule. The plan includes unlimited talk and text plus 2GB of high-speed data (including access to 5G service) for $15 per month, which is half the price of its currently lowest priced plan. Customers can also get 5GB of high-speed data for $25 per month, plus tax. The plans come with an annual data upgrade each year, providing 500MB of additional monthly data at no extra cost for the next five years.

The less expensive phone plans were supposed to launch once T-Mobile’s merger with Sprint was finalized, but the operator said it decided to offer early starting tomorrow (March 25) in response to COVID-19 to ensure affordable plans when people may be faced with financial stress.

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In his blog post, Ray said T-Mobile’s network is performing well, as mobile traffic increased over the last two weeks, but acknowledged “the overall contribution to total network loading has been relatively minor.”

“Because communications infrastructure, like wireless networks, are classified as ‘essential services,’ network engineers from T-Mobile and across the industry are out there day in and day out working to ensure critical communications services are there for our customers,” wrote Ray.

Last week the FCC granted T-Mobile permission to access additional 600 MHz spectrum through a sharing agreement with others including Dish and Comcast – doubling the operator’s 600 MHz LTE capacity nationwide for 60 days.