UK talks for longer during lockdown

08 October 2020

  • Callers spent around 50% longer on their mobiles during early stages of the coronavirus lockdown, Ofcom research shows
  • Mobile use shifted from city centres to suburbs, as millions worked from home
  • More mobile chats in parks and open spaces, as people sought outdoor time
  • People had a 4G network available to them more than 80% of the time

Time spent on mobile calls rose significantly this year, as people turned to their phones to keep in touch with loved ones and work from home.

Ofcom’s second Mobile Matters report analyses how around 200,000 people used their Android mobile phones between January and April this year, shedding light on how people make calls and get online on the move.

The report reveals marked differences in how people used their phones before and during the initial Covid-19 lockdown period.

The average mobile call in the initial weeks of lockdown lasted around five and a half minutes – nearly two minutes more than before the social and working restrictions began.

Average mobile call time before lockdown was 3 minutes 40 seconds, rising to 5 minutes 26 seconds in the early post-lockdown period.

But more generally, many people are not using their mobile for traditional calls at all. Ofcom’s data shows that more than one in five people (22%) did not make or receive a single call on their mobile network in the first 11 weeks of the year. This can in part be explained by the rise of newer communications services such as WhatsApp, Zoom and others – whether for calls, instant messaging or group video calls.

The proportion of people not making calls did not change between pre- and post-lockdown, suggesting some people have a preference for using different services to communicate regardless.

Mobiles head outdoors

The coronavirus also changed where people used their mobile phone. Mobile activity in the centres of the UK’s capital cities fell dramatically at the start of lockdown – as people headed away from offices to work from home.

Cardiff (-26%), Belfast, Edinburgh and London (all -33%) saw sharp drops in mobile activity, especially in more central areas, while suburban and rural areas saw an increase in mobile activity, as people spent more time in their local areas.

Our research also shows how some people used the initial lockdown period to take the chance to go outside and enjoy the quieter, greener parts of their areas. For example, we saw increases in mobile activity in parts of London’s Richmond Park, Blackford Hill in Edinburgh, Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park near Belfast, and the Welsh coastal hamlet of Lavernock.

Changes in use of smartphones in city centres during lockdown: in London mobile connections fell by 33%, wifi connections rose by 10%, in Edinburgh mobile connections fell by 33%, wifi connections rose by 4%, in Cardiff mobile connections fell by 26%, wifi connections rose by 12%, in Belfast mobile connections fell by 33%, wifi connections rose by 2%.

Ian Macrae, Ofcom’s Director of Market Intelligence, said: “Staying in touch has never been more important and our analysis paints a fascinating picture of how people moved around and used their phones during lockdown. People spent much longer talking on their phones and while city centres were much quieter than before, green spaces across the UK had much higher phone use.

“Our data also shows that for the large majority of the time people were able to connect to high speed 4G networks.”

How networks are performing

Our report also looked at how well mobile networks performed in the first part of the year. People had a 4G network available to them over 80% of the time. When people did try to connect to 4G networks those attempts were successful 97% of the time.

However, we also found that connections were twice as likely to fail when the network is busy in mobile hot spots – such as city centres and train stations – at peak times.

Advice on improving your mobile reception is available from the Ofcom website.


  1. “Pre-lockdown” is here defined as 1 January to 22 March 2020, before the Prime Minister’s statement on 23 March; “post-lockdown” refers to 23 March – 30 April 2020
  2. Apple’s iOS system does not allow logging of information in the background, in the same way Android’s system does. That means any network performance and connection tests would have to be actively run by the user, which would be likely to only give a very limited number of records. The testing approach on Android phones has allowed us to collect data.
  3. Analysis of outgoing mobile voice calls lasting longer than 10 seconds fall within the previously defined ‘pre-lockdown’ and ‘post-lockdown’ time periods. The average mobile call length pre-lockdown was 3 minutes and 40 seconds while the average mobile call length post-lockdown was 5 minutes and 26 seconds.
  4. People using EE’s network spent the highest proportion of time connected to 4G (87%) compared to those using Three’s network who spent 73% of the time using 4G.
  5. 4G networks were available to people 81% of the time pre-lockdown and 82% of the time post-lockdown.