How Messaging Is Replacing Phone

The decline in traffic on cellular phone networks is only the latest indication of the decline in phone usage. Messaging in all its forms is slowly replacing phone calls for moment-to-moment person-to-person communication.

It is funny to think of the decline of the telephone network when half of us are practically glued to our mobile phones and trying to break free from that habit, but consider how far the mobile phone has drifted from its original purpose of making voice calls by dialing a telephone number. If you are trying to break the phone habit, the complaint is not that you are talking all day, but that you are spending too much time looking at the small screen.

Even when people are talking on their phones, it is as likely to be on a meeting or messaging platform as it is on the phone network. Real-time voice conversations can be on FaceTime, Zoom, Google, Telegram, Signal, and a hundred other platforms and services, all of which bypass the phone network in their default configurations and many of which have no connection to the phone network at all.

And then there is text. SMS messages go out on the phone network, but use a trivial amount of data. A day of text might use the same data as a second of a phone call.

SMS is only the most basic text delivery platform, though. Most text messages are sent over other frameworks that don’t connect to the phone network. Apple’s iMessage has for years carried more messages than SMS, as it picks up all text messages from one Apple device to another.

Live streaming on TikTok and similar platforms is another medium taking the place of phone. In a live stream, generally only one person can speak while everyone else communicates by text. It nevertheless provides much of the immediacy and feeling of connection that people previously relied on phone calls for. Video conferencing is similar but more flexible, making it easier to have two-way conversations and to shift the focus from one person to another.

Against the rise of alternatives, there is an increasing resistance to the intrusiveness of phone calls. Individual users can now set their phones to not ring when an unknown or untrusted caller is calling. Many enterprises no longer issue desk phones to ordinary workers because of the productivity drain that unwanted phone calls can create, even in comparison to messaging and scheduled meetings.

The latest earnings reports from Nokia and Ericsson, two of the largest network equipment manufacturers, underscore this trend. Construction of the 5G mobile network in North America has slowed sharply this year, and although economic uncertainty is a factor, the underlying trend is that people are spending less time talking.

Voice calls are not the only data hogs on the cellular network, and the others are also taking a step back. Web advertisements, which typically use more data than the web page that contains them, are losing presence because of the increasing effectiveness of ad blockers on mobile devices. Ad blockers may prevent an advertising movie from loading, for example, until you click the play button — something you are not likely to do if you have seen that ad already, as is usually the case. Arguably the biggest data hog in mobile data is high definition video, and that too has been in retreat as users find that the supposed improvement in picture quality is not always visible, while the larger number of glitches degrade the viewing experience in a big way. YouTube, for example, was pushing HD video in a big way three years ago, but has backed off from that and now allows users to turn off HD video entirely.

The 5G technology itself has taken much of the load away from the cellular network, as it allows phone calls to be carried over wifi connections. This is a major factor for a user like me, as most of my phone calls occur when I am at home or in an office. With wifi calling enabled, I no longer need the cellular network every day.

All the trends, but the decline in voice calls especially, are leading to a lighter load on the cellular network. Meanwhile, messaging, with its greater economy and versatility, seems sure to continue to gain share and replace more phone calls with lighter forms of communication.

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