Exploring the impact COVID-19 has had on mobility and mobile traffic

Communication needs in times of crisis

The first months of 2020 saw the spread of a novel coronavirus around the globe. Subsequent behavioral changes, due to lockdown restrictions in many countries, caused measurable changes in the usage of both fixed and mobile networks.

Key findings

  • As the COVID-19 pandemic led to lockdown restrictions in many countries, measurable changes can be seen in the usage of both fixed and mobile networks.
  • Networks saw a substantial increase of between 20 and 70 percent in the volume and duration of voice calls.
  • Network traffic loads shifted geographically from city centers to suburban areas. While most of this was absorbed by fixed networks, mobile networks still saw spikes in traffic outside of peak hours.

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) forced an unprecedented number of people all over the world to change their workplace from office to home and become accustomed to new routines in their daily lives. As new digital behaviors are forming, the critical role of communications service providers to support a functioning society with flawless digital communication capabilities in times of crisis has become apparent.

Network traffic and service impact

As people spent more time online at home, network traffic loads shifted geographically from city centers and office areas to suburban residential areas. The largest share of the traffic increase as lockdowns went into place was absorbed by the fixed residential network, but many service providers also experienced an increased demand on the mobile network.

Networks are dimensioned to support traffic demand during peak hours of usage, which for data traffic normally occurs in the evening. However, the data traffic generated as people worked from home also created additional peak hours of usage during daytime. It was primarily these peak hours of data usage that needed to be supported with a sufficient level of network performance to avoid service quality degradation, e.g. by measures like capacity upgrades, load balancing and traffic optimization.

There are different minimum network throughput requirements for various apps that need to be maintained to provide a service at a specific quality level, such as fast web download times, short video start times and good picture quality. Conversational and bidirectional apps, such as video calling, require at least 1Mbps downlink/uplink throughput, while media consumption could require up to 20Mbps downlink throughput for a good service quality.

The increased data consumption was mainly driven by a rising usage of bidirectional remote work-related apps, such as audio, web and video conferencing, entertainment apps (streaming video and audio), social media and messaging.

Figure 1: The lockdown restriction effect on mobility and mobile traffic levels

Figure 1: The lockdown restriction effect on mobility and mobile traffic levels

Networks rising to the challenge

A substantial increase in the volume and duration of mobile voice calls across networks – ranging from 20 to 70 percent – was observed in the most impacted regions during the initial lockdown phase. Mobile data traffic growth was typically moderate, or even negative, ranging from -10 to 20 percent in different networks. However, the traffic increase was unevenly distributed, with some cells experiencing a large increase despite overall moderate or even decreasing traffic growth throughout the network. In markets with limited penetration of fixed residential networks, the mobile data demand increase was especially high. In general, service providers managed to provide sufficient network performance despite changing traffic patterns and increased traffic demand.

In some markets, a contributing factor to mobile data traffic growth was that service providers made temporary changes to data plans and either increased the “bucket size” or allowed unlimited data for a certain period of time.

On rare occasions, minor degradation in mobile network performance was observed, typically on individual cell level where capacity upgrades were needed. In many cases, overall network performance even improved due to reduced population movement and less mobile traffic. It is often difficult for consumers to distinguish network performance issues from application server congestion, or under-dimensioned corporate VPN capacity. In many cases, perceived performance problems are related to specific services and increased load on their related servers (e.g. during video conferencing).

As consumers and enterprises try out new digital behaviors imposed by COVID-19, an increased importance may emerge for e-health, wellness apps, e-learning, public sector data access and similar digital utility services.

Figure 2: The fixed and mobile network impact following lockdown restrictions

Figure 2: The fixed and mobile network impact following lockdown restrictions

Mobile network impact

  • The traffic demand shifted from downtown and public areas to suburban residential areas.

  • Some cells experienced very large increases in traffic despite moderate growth, flat or even decreasing traffic trends across the whole network.

  • End-user-experienced data speeds decreased in newly loaded cells and increased in unloaded ones.

  • User mobility across the networks decreased, leading to general improvement of some key performance indicators (KPI), e.g. retainability.

Keeping connected during the crisis

Consumers’ communication behavior has partly changed, where video calling and video conferencing services appear to stand out, especially among white-collar workers and seniors (60+).

Previously, consumers have not fully embraced video calling as one could have expected, as is evidenced by a relatively low uptake in most countries. Now, as many as half of respondents in a recently conducted consumer study claim they have increased their usage of video calls.1 It also appears that video calling is the service that most have started to use during the crisis. As many as 85 percent of consumers now use video calling, making it the second most important way of contacting family and friends during the crisis, after voice calls. The study also shows that the quality of video calls with friends and family is the most important experience when consumers were asked to judge their mobile network performance during the crisis.

Among seniors, 74 percent claim they now use video calls and 4 out of 10 have increased their video usage due to social distancing. Among white-collar workers, 88 percent now use video calls, and as many as 60 percent say they have increased their usage of video calls.

This behavior among seniors is likely to continue and remain established after the crisis ends. For white-collar workers, the habit of using video conferencing seems likely to continue into the future as 7 in 10 believe they will be working more from home after the crisis than they did before. They also agree that the traditional way of conducting voice-based conference calls will change to video-based conference calls.

1 Ericsson Consumer & IndustryLab, Keeping consumers connected in a COVID-19 context (April 2020)

Base: Smartphone users aged 15–69 within Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, the UK and the US