How U.S. Cellular is handling increased network demand during COVID-19 pandemic

May 14, 2020

Q&A with Lori Dawson, Senior Director of Services Engineering in Knoxville, Tennessee


Q: With Gov. Bill Lee’s “Tennessee Pledge: Reopening Tennessee Responsibly” in place many people are still juggling challenges, including increased internet use because of working from and/or staying at home. How has the network been affected?

A: U.S. Cellular has seen an increase in its network traffic with so many people asked to continue social distancing guidelines as the country tries to mitigate further spread of COVID-19. That rise has come from increased voice calls, texting and data traffic and also higher demand for video calling, sending and viewing business presentations, meetings and students of all grade levels having to learn and complete schoolwork virtually.

As Tennessee implemented precautions over the past two months and recommendations for staying at home expanded, we saw a big jump in traffic on our network. To withstand the increase in bandwidth, we use a variety of artificial intelligence-based systems to self-manage the network, in addition to our network teams who constantly monitor activity to make modifications and enhancements to capacity as needed.

As expected, network traffic that we typically plan for around commercial and business areas decreased, while network activity in residential areas and rural communities is increasing, a sign that various stay-at-home orders are being followed.

Q: What kind of traffic is leading to increased bandwidth with people having to stay at home?

A: After years of seeing a decline in voice usage as more people use text messaging and social media, we have seen an uptick in recent weeks. Employees and families can’t see each other in person like they are used to, and sometimes nothing else can replace a phone call and hearing a voice.

We’ve also noticed an increase in video calling with people wanting to see each other, whether personally or professionally. We’ve seen an increase in use of work-from-home and remote learning technology, along with streaming video traffic as people are trying to keep occupied while at home through Netflix, YouTube or similar apps.

Q: How is U.S. Cellular using AI to work its network?

A: Using artificial intelligence, or AI, is one way we’ve worked to strengthen our network, part of a series of efforts we’ve implemented for several years as we’ve learned from natural disasters that can disrupt service. We design our cell sites with battery backup, generators and equipment redundancies within the facilities. And because we know there are times when demand increases, we built in extra capacity to act as a shock absorber, so if demand goes higher than expected, it can be absorbed by the system.

With AI, we integrated several systems that optimize the network. We have very specific functionalities and systems that optimize during natural disasters or times of increased usage such as a pandemic. For example, one function adds and moves capacity and signals around the network to where people are. We also have AI platforms that help with security and watch for malicious traffic or hacking attempts. That way, we can prevent that interference from reaching our customers.

About U.S. Cellular

U.S. Cellular is the fourth-largest full-service wireless carrier in the United States, providing national network coverage and industry-leading innovations designed to elevate the customer experience. The Chicago-based carrier is building a stronger network with the latest 5G technology and offers a wide range of communication services that enhance consumers’ lives, increase the competitiveness of local businesses and improve the efficiency of government operations. To learn more about U.S. Cellular, visit one of its retail stores or To get the latest news, promos and videos, connect with U.S. Cellular on, and