The U.S. government’s response to COVID-19 has impacted virtually every aspect of every life in America. Millions of people are now working from home. Just as many children and teens are either learning remotely or adjusting to school with a mask. Social distancing guidelines have completely altered the way we interact with each other. And without a doubt, one of the most significant changes in our society to occur in the wake of mass coronavirus precautions has been the spike in cellular data and internet usage. To no one’s surprise, mobile phone data during COVID-19 has gone up.
The demand for connectivity resources, from tablets and smartphones to video chat software and hardware, is off the charts. The amount of hours people are spending using their devices and apps is higher than it’s ever been.
More details below.
What Does Mobile Phone Data During COVID-19 Look Like Compared To Before?
Long before COVID-19 received its name, mobile data usage has been steadily rising for years. The amount of data-using devices per household has been increasing for some time. In the last decade, the average amount of time spent per person using mobile data has more than doubled. The ever-increasing convenience of faster speeds has sent the demand for web surfing, gaming, and video streaming way up. And as robust data plans have become more affordable, so has usage statistics.
But with the advent of the coronavirus and subsequent lockdowns, both work and leisure data usage has soared to record heights. Video conferencing and remote meetings, for example, have not only become more popular than ever; they’ve become essential to the workplace in almost every industry. Socializing has transitioned largely from in-person to online as people make efforts to follow social distancing recommendations. Mobile networks across the globe have been forced to take measures in order to accommodate the unprecedented demand on communication networks. Data caps, for example, have been removed by many carriers.
The COVID situation isn’t just placing increased usage demands on networks. Another issue is that the current cellular infrastructure was not designed to support the many new millions of users working from home all day. Rather, traditional provisioning was originally set up to support primarily daytime workers in dense urban areas and city centers, as is usually the norm. Data usage in the time of corona has a whole new spatial distribution in addition to the increased demand.
All of these facts beg the question: what kind of data performance can you and I expect during these highly unusual circumstances?
The Importance of Band and Bandwidth
Now that socializing, learning, and working is being done primarily from home, the majority of mobile data usage during COVID-19 will take place indoors. This means that spectrum holdings will be as important as ever. Because cell signals are literally radio waves, higher frequencies have a harder time going through solid objects like the walls and ceilings of your home. Lower bands, on the other hand, can travel farther and do a better job at penetrating walls and other solid structures. This fact is true all the time, irrespective of 3G, 4G, or 5G.
The major carriers know this, of course. Which is why many of them are focusing their signal distribution on low-band spectrums mixed with lots of bandwidth. The increased bandwidth assists the signals to handle the suddenly hefty traffic.
Pipes are a good visual here. In order to handle the traffic, the pipe should be as big and round as possible (bandwidth) and be placed in the most effective spot (low-band spectrum).
How Major U.S. Carriers Are Handling Mobile Phone Data During COVID-19
It may not come as a surprise to you that T-Mobile is the most well-positioned network in the light of current circumstances. Since joining forces with Sprint, the carrier’s capabilities and potential are brighter than most others. They’ve received a temporary 600 MHz spectrum loan from DISH Network to mix in with the significant amount of 600 MHz spectrum that they already own. (Yes, major networks can acquire signal spectrums and maintain ownership of them). 600 MHz is a low-band spectrum.
AT&T owns 700 MHz spectrum in large amounts which is serving them well during this high-traffic time as 700 MHz is also low-band.
Verizon’s situation is a bit different. They recently acquired 850 MHz spectrum (not quite as low as the spectrums of T-Mobile and AT&T), and their overall bandwidth is relatively small. Though 850 MHz is still considered low-band, their pipe isn’t very big (remember our example above). Verizon is considering bumping up their cell tower transmissions and may even add more towers to their arsenal; both efforts to offset their deficiencies. These are large undertakings that would take time.
Which U.S. Carriers Are Performing the Best?
Believe it or not, recent tests suggest that AT&T’s band and bandwidth quality have been (for the most part) as good as T-Mobile’s since the COVID-19 lockdown. Their indoor and driving speeds are as fast as any of their competitors, and in many cases faster.
T-Mobile’s handle on low-band spectrum (as previously mentioned) has put them in a great position to maintain fast, reliable speeds and call quality. All data points suggest that if indoor signal demand increases even more than it has already, T-Mobile would still be able to support it.
Where indoor band and bandwidth are concerned, Verizon is doing almost as well as AT&T and T-Mobile. But if the demand for indoor usage continues to expand, Verizon will likely be limited in comparison due to their bandwidth limitations.
Will 5G Help Mobile Phone Data During COVID-19?
Not really. Certainly not in the U.S., at least. This is because – even though it’s expanding rapidly – 5G is nowhere near widely available in America yet. As of now, 5G speeds where available are roughly the same as the 4G LTE you’re used to. Yes, in some places it’s faster than 4G (for Verizon customers, mostly). But in most locations, it hasn’t yet reached its potential. It’ll get there soon, though. Don’t worry.
As impressive as some of Verizon’s 5G speeds are, they likely won’t make much of a splash where new virus-related changes are concerned. This is because Verizon’s 5G uses mmWave spectrum. Remember that mmWave, while quite fast, is limited in the amount of ground it can cover, resulting in limited coverage. It also has a hard time penetrating walls which doesn’t bode particularly well if you’re working from home.
Mobile Phone Data During COVID-19: Is The Lockdown Affecting Data Performance? – Conclusion
So what’s the takeaway regarding mobile phone data during COVID-19? If we’ve learned anything from this extraordinary moment in history, it’s that we cannot underestimate how important connectivity has become to our lives. Whether we’re proponents of it or not, it’s here to stay. It’s woven into the fabric of how our society operates. And perhaps during times of crises, it’s even more important. If it wasn’t for our modern communication infrastructure (which relies almost exclusively on mobile connectivity), working and socializing remotely would likely not be possible, or at least be infinitely more difficult logistically.
From our vantage point, it appears that carriers are doing a great job to accommodate the huge influx of mobile traffic brought on during the COVID-19 event. Usage patterns have changed wildly and new distributions of network demands have placed unimaginable stresses on carriers. Despite all of this, the end user’s experience has remained largely the same. Impressive, to the say the least.
And it would be careless of us not to mention that cell phone signal boosters are as relevant as they’ve ever been during this time of crisis. If you’ve experienced a decline in service quality during the last few months, look into getting a signal booster. They’ve helped hundreds of thousands of people this year. We know they’ll do the same for you.