Spike in voice calls puts UK telecoms networks under strain

A surge of up to 50 per cent in the number of phone calls being made over mobile and landline networks has put Britain’s telephone system under significant strain and led ministers to call for industry action to improve coverage of voice services. 

The rise in voice calls has led to issues of call quality, dropped calls and a major outage last week.

The issue was discussed on a conference call between Melanie Dawes, Ofcom’s chief executive; Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary; Matt Warman, the minister for digital infrastructure; and industry leaders on Friday as politicians called for reassurance that networks can handle a dramatic rise in communications use. 

The capacity of broadband networks to handle a huge increase in traffic generated by millions of people working from home because of the coronavirus outbreak has been tested in recent days and led to Netflix and YouTube agreeing to lower the capacity demands of their streaming services. 

The release of a new game in the Doom franchise on Friday was the latest stress point for networks that remain confident that broadband capacity is sufficient to meet the needs of millions of people working from home at the same time that children are off school using online learning materials or streaming films or games. 

Yet it is voice calls that have caused the most teething problems in relocating the working population from urban centres to residential areas.

The number of mobile phone calls being made by homebound workers overloaded the system that connects phone messages between different mobile networks last Tuesday and triggered a bout of industry finger pointing over who was to blame. That issue was resolved quickly but voice call quality remained poor over the course of the week. 

The number of phone calls made over the O2 mobile network surged 50 per cent that day which was the equivalent to seven years of growth in one day. It saw 160m calls lasting an average seven minutes, 40 per cent longer than normal.

BT has said that its EE network can deal with the rise in the number of phone calls being made but has now urged phone users to revert to landlines or internet-based services like Skype for longer calls. 

Dean Bubley, the founder of advisory firm Disruptive Analysis, said that the changing patterns of consumer behaviour had meant that old mobile networks were having a “rough ride”.

“The good old fashioned phone call seems to have made a comeback and everyone is calling their [metaphorical] granny who may have a 3G phone that doesn’t run over the WiFi,” he said of the capacity crunch. Mobile networks are also configured to handle huge amounts of traffic in areas like central London rather than a row of terraced houses in the home counties. 

Enrique Blanco, chief technology officer of Telefónica which owns O2 in the UK, said that Spain faced a similar situation when it was hit by the pandemic, and workers and schoolchildren were sent home.

Mobile voice traffic immediately rose between 40 and 45 per cent, he said, while fixed-line calls surged 30 per cent. That has been replicated in other markets, including Germany and the UK. 

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