The Humble Phone Call Has Made a Comeback

In Albany, La., the priests and deacons of St. Margaret Queen of Scotland church recently divided up a list of 900 parishioners to call to check in on them, something they never did because they saw their members in person. Some of the congregants in the rural community outside New Orleans were suspicious when they answered, accustomed to robocalls from unfamiliar numbers.

But Brad Doyle, the associate priest, said they eased up when he began to speak. They talked about their daily routines and said they missed Sunday service, especially ahead of Easter. One congregant went into great detail about the Netflix documentary “Tiger King.” Many wanted to just hear a prayer, he said.

Grace McClellan, 32, a high school teacher in Charleston, S.C., has also turned to phone calls as an antidote to the loneliness of living apart from family and friends. She has begun synchronizing a daily walk-and-talk with her best friend, who lives in Connecticut. With her friend’s voice piping through her earbuds, “it feels as close as possible to a real walk together,” Ms. McClellan said.

The return of the voice call is a throwback for telecom companies. For years, Verizon, CenturyLink and AT&T have retired copper wire phone lines that were introduced 150 years ago.

The companies have instead invested in broadband networks and expanding capacity for things like higher-resolution video and video gaming. They also beefed up their networks to handle next-generation wireless technology, called 5G, which will allow people to download a movie in seconds and may spur a wave of driverless car technology and robotics.

“For years, we’ve seen a steady decline in the amount of time people spend talking to one another, especially on wireless devices,” Kyle Malady, Verizon’s chief technology officer, said in a statement. “The move to staying at home has reignited people’s hunger to stay connected, voice to voice.”

The surge in voice calls is for both business and personal purposes, said Chris Sambar, AT&T’s executive vice president of technology and operations. Before the spread of the coronavirus led to stay-at-home orders, wireless calls typically peaked in the morning and evening rush hours. Once people got to their offices and schools, the call volumes fell.

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