Voice Calls on Phone

Talk…talk…talk. ! It feels so wholesome to connect with friends near and far.

An infographic from AT&T called Network Insights. It compares a day in late April, 2020 with average calling and wifi use. The pandemic has surged network use.
More phone traffic during pandemic (2020)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: During the pandemic my phone started to ring more often, and I got nice voice calls from my family on the other coast, from my college roommate, and even from relatives overseas. Now it seems like I am getting less real calls and more fake ones, like robo-calls. I enjoyed catching up with friends on the phone and having long conversations. But, is that over now? Rachel, New York

Dear Rachel: Hopefully people will emerge from the pandemic with a greater appreciation for how to use their phone to renew and sustain relationships. Going forward, you must be willing to initiate those personal calls, as well as receive them. It’s a revival of that old AT&T slogan, “Reach Out and Touch Someone.”

But first, you are spot-on about the frequency of voice calling during the pandemic. 

Network Gains:

 AT&T reports that between mid-March and May 1, wireless calls (for home and business) peaked at 44% above typical levels and Wi-Fi calling more than doubled.  In the same period Verizon experienced about 800 million daily calls, double the number they traditionally handled on Mother’s Day, the busiest calling day of the year. 

The pandemic makes us all more aware that relationships are  fragile and precious. We worry. And, we seek more direct knowledge and experience by checking in with people from other parts of the country. The sound of a familiar voice is comforting and human.

Voice calls can also fill a vital need, someplace between the digital world and the personal one. 

People Gains:

During the pandemic more people are  at home and fewer on- the- road, so, to coin another telco slogan, they ‘Let their Fingers do the Walking.’  Lots of family members share a single slow Internet connection, so voice communications is more dependable. Also, people are tired of being online so much so voice calls provide a break. 

But, now, as things open up- how do you make the phone calls keep happening? It may depend, in part, on your age group.

Ringing forward…

If your friends are Boomers or older, maybe set up a regular time or routine for a call, say at a fixed time each week. But if that doesn’t suit them, text your friends first, and set up a time to talk, maybe the next hour, or the next day. These days people can answer a phone call anywhere (at the beach, in their car, in the bath) so it makes sense to text first, in advance of a voice call.

Second, if you have younger friends, or kids, think of a different strategy. Perhaps when you call, start with Facetime or a similar video program. But then, as the conversation proceeds, ask if you can switch out to voice. That way you stay current with their technology, and they stay current with you. The pandemic has helped younger people become “less allergic” to voice calling, or maybe just more familiar with it.

Whichever method you find for maintaining voice calls, do not get in the habit of placing these from your car. First, these are vital connections so they deserve your time and attention. And, if it’s meaningful, and life is, don’t risk the cognitive distraction. It’s important to preserve the strong relationships we have developed during the pandemic and do so safely.

Kids Use Ipad in Car?

Long car trip, many miles to go
with 1 dog and 2 kids..should we bring out the Ipads?

Are we there yet? Displayed in text as a green road sign. There are puffy white clouds in the background.
It’s a sign of a long trip. Are we there yet?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: We have a long cross-country trip ahead of us. We have two kids and one dog.  Our dog can’t get on the airplane, so we decided to take him with us. I think it is OK to let the children have their own Ipad in the car to watch a kid’s show or play games. My wife says I am taking the easy way out and we should not allow them to have the Ipads. What would you do?  The children, by the way, are ages eight and four.  Max, Boston.

Dear Max: You asked me what I would do- seriously, I would fly, but then there’s the dog, and keeping the family Covid safe. It’s good that you and your spouse are having this discussion about digital media before you set out. 

It is hard to peer out of the back-seat window for days on end. But, it’s also hard to drive with noisy, restless kids. Perhaps download a number of family-oriented books-on-tapes before you go. That way, as you drive, you can share the content together. If you give them Ipads, it is one-on-one media. You lose the ability to talk together and bring an adult view to the kid content. 

Let’s Get Bored!

But, importantly, do not underestimate the power of kids getting bored. Each person has to solve it individually and learn that feeling bored is normal. It can also become the gateway to creative thinking and focus. There is so much media to entertain young children today (and keep them quiet) that we overlook the value of downtime. A noted clinical psychiatrist says that boredom, not mental health, is the real issue bubbling up from the pandemic. So, in these times, we need to teach children that it’s OK to be bored. The psychiatrist notes that teens seems to need more novelty and sensation seeking, and their understimulated state opens the door to recreational drugs. So, a few days in the car without the Ipad may set younger kids on a better path. 

IRL Geography

Finally, there’s real educational value in experiencing the vast expanse of this country first-hand. It’s the IRL geography class. You’ll find lots of sites online for making it useful, like this one.  I would personally stop at each state’s Welcome Center so that Fido gets to stretch his legs, and the kids get a souvenir, and pick out free brochures and maps to then study in the car. Maybe your eight year old will want to keep a diary of the trip- either digitally or on paper. The point is to experience it first, record it later, and share it together. Have a good time and drive safe. 

Prepare Phones if Natural Disaster

“We interrupt our normal column to bring you this Emergency Broadcast…..”

When you prepare your emergency kit don’t neglect the phones. The lightning strikes that have set off fires in Northern California this week are a wake-up call. While phones and telecommunications have been a lifesaver during the Covid panedemic, their role is even more vital during a natural disaster, like a fire or earthquake. They are the fragile link to stay on top of evacuations, to dial 911, and reach contacts.

They are fragile, because if the electricity gets knocked out, many phones will not be able to send or receive messages. In the 2019 fires in California, crucial notifications went unsent, and people in disaster areas were without communications.

This year (2020) there is pending legislation (SB431) and a plan from the state Public Utilities Commission, but neither will solve the issues for this Fall.

Smartphones To Rescue?

If you have a smartphone, and most people do, there are a few steps you can take, but they will not guarantee your safety. If you have recently moved, sign up to receive emergency notifications from the local county and utilities. Then, keep the phone charged and prepare a means to recharge it on the fly, like your car, a household generator, or an inverter cable tied to an electric car battery. Some people recommended keeping a spare older phone with a solar charger in your emergency kit, just for dialing 911.

LandlineS to Rescue?

You might think it prudent to keep a landline alongside your smartphone as redundancy matters. But the danger is that, during the October, 2019 fires, landlines failed too. It turns out that ‘POTS’, Plain Old Telephone Service; i.e., the landline connected to a phone jack, depended on electrical power and used the same transmission as smartphones.

Before the Internet, telephone companies routed calls with paired copper cable, a method that required almost no external power, except at the Central Switching Station. Today, fiber optic lines have replaced many copper telephone cables, even for the landlines.

The problem is compounded because Central Switching Stations, once the bastion for safety and redundancy, now use fiber optics to link between stations. This produces yet another vulnerable communications link during electrical power outages.

Stay Informed!

Under normal, everyday conditions, fiber optics are the backbone for calling and the Internet. They out-perform copper wire because of their lightening speed, capacity, and cost. During the pandemic, telecommunications have been the lifeline that supports the ability to work from home, have classes over the Internet, and engage in Zoom meetups.

Now, when we face a crisis on two fronts, both a natural disaster and a virus pandemic, we need telecommunications more than ever, and we personally need to stay resilient and informed.