Technology: New year, same old habits, says BT expert

Nicola Millard who is based at Adastral Park

Nicola Millard who is based at Adastral Park - Credit: Archant

ACCORDING to telecoms giant BT, we pick up the phone at the same sorts of time of the day – every day, week in, week out. Until, that is, something unexpected or unusual happens, or a special day of the year comes around, as Dr Nicola Millard from Adastral Park told Sheline Clarke.

Take for instance, New Year’s Eve, when, alongside the growth in the popularity of texting and social media, there is always a surge in phone calls from revellers wanting to be the first to wish their nearest and dearest a happy new year as Big Ben begins to toll.

The first hour of the New Year tends to see a 10-fold increase in calls, with party-goers continuing to chat away into the small hours as dawn breaks on a new day and the New Year.

BT customer experience researcher, Dr Nicola Millard, below, who is based at Adastral Park, BT’s research and development laboratories, near Ipswich, is not surprised: “Technology very seldom changes our core behaviours. Human beings are naturally social creatures - the human brain is attuned to audio and face-to-face contact.

“For that reason, for the real emotional stuff, for the communications that really matter, such as telling someone you love them on New Year’s Eve, we’re still far more likely to pick up the phone.”

The Christmas holiday period is always traditionally a very busy time for BT’s 999 operators, with call levels into BT’s 999 centres in Bangor, Blackburn, Dundee, Glasgow, Newport, Nottingham and Portadown at their highest during the early hours of New Year’s Day, reaching in excess of 200 calls per minute.

Away from the festive period, perhaps not surprisingly, the most popular time of the day to make a phone call is first thing in the morning, and the busiest time of the week is Monday morning, coinciding with the start of the working week.

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Troughs are often linked to the nation’s television viewing habits and can be triggered by everything from popular soap operas to big sporting events. This ‘down time’ is often followed by surges in calls being made.

There is no doubt that the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games captured the attention – as well as the hearts - of the nation, because hardly anyone made a phone call while it was on. In an interesting twist, this was followed in the hours immediately afterwards by a surge in demand for broadband, as people replayed parts of it on iPlayer, BT Vision and a variety of broadband devices.

BT’s network centre on the outskirts of Oswestry in Shropshire is the eyes and ears of the UK’s communications network, 24 hours a day. It’s the centre’s job to ensure phone calls get through to their intended destinations, whether you’re booking an appointment at the doctor’s or ringing your aunt in Australia.

Around five billion calls pass over or connect through BT’s ‘core’ network every month.

The centre is equipped with an array of computers that are constantly ‘talking’ to each other and feeding back information to the network team every second of every day, displayed on one of the biggest video walls in Europe.

Often likened to NASA’s mission control, this communications hub is responsible for overseeing the smooth running of more than 46,000 routes around the UK, linked to more than 5,000 telephone exchange areas.

The team also monitors volumes of phone traffic around the world through its network of subsea cables and via satellites from BT’s international communications centre at Madley in Herefordshire.

And because we’re creatures of habit, this team of experts can predict when surges in calls are most likely to happen and plan accordingly, which in turn helps them to manage the network more effectively.

As well as New Year’s Eve, other predictable phoning frenzies are prompted by celebrity reality TV and televoting programmes, such as Strictly Come Dancing and The X-Factor. Last year’s final of Strictly Come Dancing saw a four-fold increase in calls over the network – presumably, as a result of fans voting and wanting to talk about it.

BT’s custodians of the country’s communications network are equally geared up for the unexpected.

If one of the communications routes encounters a problem – caused by something like a natural disaster - the centre has the expertise to re-route calls around the UK – or indeed around the world – simultaneously, at no extra cost to the caller – and without them even knowing.

It’s also the weather that often causes a surge in calls. October’s Hurricane Sandy was not only making waves along the east coast of America, it also prompted a wave of calls on both sides of the Atlantic as people tried to check on loved ones and business colleagues, and simply to talk about what had happened, but many of the calls themselves were, not surprisingly, relatively short.

Barbara McNally-Young, network centre manager, said: “There is no doubt that when it comes to making phone calls, we’re definitely creatures of habit. Virtually every working week, our calling patterns are the same.

“Over the years improvements to the technology we use to monitor the network have enabled us to scrutinise and analyse data about calling patterns even more closely to enable us to do our jobs even better.

“But at the same time, we’re always ready for the unexpected and constantly keep an eye on news channels and social media sites as well as our own data for early signs of events that may cause people to pick up the phone in an unexpected way.

“For example, overnight or early morning snow fall in the UK has been known to more than double call attempts as people rush to pick up the phone to check transport links or call work.”

Dr Millard, added: “We’re using technology more, but we’re using it to do what we’ve always done. Therefore, as bandwidth continues to grow, and wider bandwidth is more widely available with the rollout of fibre broadband, the more we’re likely to use it for face-to-face communications because instinctively that’s what people like to do.

“Nowadays we are of course texting more, but that’s the social glue that sticks us together in between all the other communicating we do.

“The combination of smartphones, other smarter technology and wider bandwidth will allow us to share even more experiences remotely, in a more geographically independent way, and globally.

“And the further apart we are from our loved ones, the more likely we are to want to share our experiences with them.

“We might use video as the next best thing to face-to-face, although voice is still a powerful way of expressing ourselves and is likely to stick around for a while because we don’t need to tidy the house and do our make-up to make a voice call, whereas we might using video!”

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