AT&T, Verizon see consumers dial up voice usage

Voice calls seem to be making a comeback as a way to connect, with AT&T and Verizon each reporting bumps in mobile voice traffic during a time when more Americans are working from home and practicing social distancing amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

Network updates from Verizon show voice usage was up 25% from March 12 compared to March 19. The carrier said that while voice usage had been on the decline with the proliferation of texting, chat and social media, more people are accessing conference call numbers, which drove voice usage.

For mobile specifically, Verizon recorded a 10% increase in wireless voice usage, with consumers talking longer and call durations increasing by 15%.

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“For years we’ve seen a steady decline in the amount of time people spend talking to one another, especially on wireless devices,” said Kyle Malady, CTO at Verizon, in a statement. “The move to staying at home has reignited people’s hunger to stay connected, voice-to-voice. Verizon’s fiber optic and wireless networks are continuing to meet the shifting demands of customers and continue to perform well.”

AT&T over the weekend also saw a spike in voice, with wireless voice calls up 44% on March 22, compared to usage on a normal Sunday.

Wi-Fi calling also jumped significantly, up 88% for AT&T, versus usual Sunday activity.

AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson, speaking in an interview with CNN, said that AT&T’s network continues to perform quite well, adding that face-to-face communication that typically happens in the work place is now occurring over mobile devices and Wi-Fi thanks to the communications infrastructure in place.

AT&T continues to closely monitor bandwidth and capacity, and Stephenson acknowledged that the operator is “seeing some signs of stress” but has technicians out performing network augmentation work where need.  

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Stephenson emphasized U.S. carriers’ network investments, even giving kudos to AT&T’s main competitors.

“Right now the network is performing quite well and this is really an indication that the United States has led the world in investment in communication infrastructure,” he told CNN. “Not just us, T-Mobile, Verizon, and this investment, billions upon billions of dollars of investment, we’re seeing it pay off at a time of national crisis like this.”

In 2019 AT&T’s gross capital investment was $23.7 billion, while Verizon spent $17.9 billion in capital expenditures. Those figures certainly include more than just network enhancements and 5G buildouts, but network initiatives have been top priorities for carriers.

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Earlier this month as the COVID-19 pandemic started to impact the U.S. more severely, Verizon announced plans to accelerate network investment and increased its 2020 capital guidance range by $500 million from $17 billion-$18 billion to $17.5 billion-$18.5 billion. The operator said it would speed up Verizon’s transition to 5G and help support the economy.

AT&T, meanwhile, decided to cancel an accelerated $4 billion share repurchase agreement with Morgan Stanley previously planned to take place in the second quarter. AT&T attributed the decision to the coronavirus pandemic.

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“While our business continues to operate effectively during the COVID-19 global pandemic, we have decided at this time to cancel this ASR agreement and any other repurchases to maintain flexibility and focus on continued investment in serving our customers, taking care of our employees and enhancing our network, including nationwide 5G,” stated AT&T in its SEC filing. 

Many service providers have been taking steps to ease burdens on customers and employees impacted by the crisis, including AT&T and Verizon, which among other commitments, have agreed to waive overage charges and late fees for 60 days.

All four major carriers, including T-Mobile and Sprint, have also removed data caps and promised to keep customers connected for at least two months, even if they’re unable to pay their bills.