As the coronavirus, COVID-19, continues its spread around the globe, millions of people are either being told to stay home or are working from home. This is having a measurable, negative impact on the audio quality of international calls and could be a harbinger of things to come.

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According to research conducted by Spearline, an Irish company that monitors call quality for contact center operators and other clients with high international inbound and outbound call volume, China experienced a 7.2% drop in audio quality in late January. In South Korea, Spearline noted an increase in connection issues and a 12% decrease in audio quality in late February. Spearline does not monitor in-country domestic calls.

“What we’re observing,” said Michael Palmer, Spearline’s chief marketing officer, “is now that persons effectively have been asked to self-isolate in many communities, the demands on the national and local networks have changed quite significantly. And that does affect the way that the international communications interconnect.”

With more people spending more time at home—watching Netflix, gaming, making calls, checking the internet—they place more demand on network gateways that were not designed to handle the load. If schools are closed and the kids are home, that only adds to the load.

Typically, when a carrier’s network becomes overwhelmed it has sharing agreements with other providers to pick up the load. But, if those providers also are experiencing high-demand, they will be unable to handle the extra traffic.

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“So there’s a kind of a waterfall effect,” Palmer said. “If there are capacity crunches on the network, the next path is chosen, and then the next path, until a free gateway is found. Because of this change, capacity strains are found in different areas, and international calls are finding different ways out of the country using different appliances. It’s a struggle for the network to adjust to any significant change in demand pattern.”

Another issue is maintenance. With localized quarantines in effect, equipment failures in those regions may not be fixed quickly. Unlike China, which has a lot of telecom engineers at the ready to address network quality and downtime issues, other areas of the world like countries in Africa may not be so well staffed, Palmer said. This could lead to these areas being slower to recover should quarantines go into effect.

As of this weekend, Palmer said call quality in both China and South Korea have improved but Spearline chalks this up to reduced demand.

“China has stabilized quite well,” Palmer said. “Though still at a lesser performance than pre-event. South Korea’s performance is somewhat more volatile with a more saw-tooth curve.”

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