Brits spend a quarter of the day online during lockdown

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The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the shift from traditional communications to online services, with adults in Britain now spending more than a quarter of their waking day online.

New figures from Ofcom show that lockdown has seen the rapid adoption of video calling and other over-the-top message and voice platforms.

The regulator found that in the 12 months leading up to February 2020, 52 per cent of adults were sending messages using apps like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger with just 41 per cent using SMS. Voice calls (38 per cent) remained more popular than online calls (31 per cent) but only marginally.

UK online use

However the desire to keep in touch with friends and family now means 7 in 10 adults now make or receive voice calls weekly, up from 35 per cent before lockdown. WhatsApp voice call use has risen from 20 per cent to 49 per cent, Facebook Messenger from 18 per cent to 41 per cent, and FaceTime from 13 per cent to 30 per cent.

Zoom started lockdown as an application for businesses but it has been widely adopted by consumers over the past three months. In January, there were just 659,000 Zoom users but by April this had increased to 13 million.

Other trends include the increased use of video platforms like YouTube and Twitch, with many people also creating content themselves. This has seen the popularity of social network TikTok grow significantly.

“Lockdown may leave a lasting digital legacy. The coronavirus has radically changed the way we live, work and communicate online, with millions of people using online video services for the first time,” said Yih-Choung Teh, Ofcom’s Director of Strategy and Research.

“As the way we communicate evolves and people broaden their online horizons, our role is to help ensure that people have a positive experience, and that they’re safe and protected.”

The legacy of the pandemic is multi-faceted. The first is that regulation of video sharing sites may increase, with 9 in 10 adults expressing concerns about children accessing harmful content, with the majority supporting greater oversight.

The second is that although overall call and text volumes might have increased during lockdown, the accelerated shift to over-the-top applications could change long-term behaviours and see traditional telecoms revenues decrease even further. This will make it even more imperative that mobile operators identify new services and sources of income, especially with the arrival of 5G.

Finally, providers will need to react to the elevated role of communications services within society. Although networks have largely remained resilient during lockdown, with operators making a series of measures to ensure everyone is connected, long-term consumer expectations could increase. 

The importance of ingoing investments in 5G and fibre – and the additional capacity that will be delivered-  will be even more evident as a result.  

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.