Cutting the Cord: The Disappearance of the Landline

Think back to the last time you heard someone mention a home phone, or even the word landline.  Months ago, maybe even years ago?  That may be an exaggeration, but the demise of the home phone is not.

The copper-wired landline communication structure that used to dominate US communication for over a century is witnessing a sharp decline.  According to a survey done by Stephen J. Blumberg, Ph.D., and Julian V. Luke of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 58 percent of American households had a landline system in 2009.  By mid 2013, however, the number had dropped to 49 percent. Additionally, approximately 24 percent of households had wireless-only homes in 2009, while over 39 percent boasted wireless-only households in 2013.  These quickly dropping prevalence rates vividly underscore the widespread shift from landline communication systems to cellular devices.

Young adults are the most likely age group to choose not to install landlines into their homes and opt for what are now called “wireless-only homes.”  According to Victor Luckerson of TIME, people between the age of 25 and 29 use cell phones exclusively.  Additionally, Luckerson reports that “Americans between 30 and 34 were the next largest group of cord-cutters, with 60 percent of them living in wireless-only homes. 53 percent of people between 18 and 24 are now cellphone-only, while 48 percent of people aged 35 to 44 and 31 percent of people aged 45 to 64 have made the jump.”

The decreasing dependability of the landline system has been cited as an additional catalyst to its demise.  According to an estimate by the Federal Communications Commission, as many as one in five inbound long-distance calls do not connect. Rob Frieden, professor of telecommunications and law at Penn State, explains that “the switches — the actual infrastructure (used in the classic home phone system) — are reaching end of life” in step with an aging engineer population where few new employees are taught to support the gargantuan switches.

States, too, are encouraging the abandonment.  According to Jennifer Waters of the Wall Street Journal, in March 2014, Michigan joined more than 30 other states that have passed or are considering laws that restrict state-government oversight and eliminate “carrier of last resort” mandates.  These laws would effectively end the universal-service guarantee that gives every U.S. resident access to local-exchange wireline telephone service, Waters claims.  Many states are also eliminating copper-based technologies, materials fundamental to the foundation of landline systems, and replacing them with fiber technologies. According to Meghan Damico of Black Box, relative to copper-based technologies, fiber technologies provides greater bandwidth, allow for greater speed and distance for data and have greater security and immunity from potentially harmful environmental factors. California, Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Ohio have all agreed to dispose of copper-based technologies in the next three years, while Kentucky and Colorado are weighing similar decisions, according to Waters.

States’ actions like these represent a growing dissatisfaction with the pre-existing communication laws that are preserving the last bits of landlines. State and telecommunication companies displeasure with current communication laws stems from the inability to replace the POTS, the plain old telephone system, with Internet Protocol-based systems that use only one broadband network for Internet access, cable programming and telephone service.  John Stephenson, director of the Communications and Technology Task Force at the American Legislative Exchange Council, explains the problem:  “Those [rules] were written at a time when consumers had no choice in the matter.  If we were to clear the underbrush of these rules written long before the Internet was even a word, there would be a lot more broadband deployed to the United States, and things that are even better that we can’t conceive of today.”

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Unsurprisingly, telecommunications giants have also had a part in eliminating landline communication systems.  According to Waters, AT&T and Verizon Wireless are lobbying multiple states to dispose of the simplistic and old-fashioned telephone system.   Additionally, telecom companies, with the permission of the FCC, are conducting trials of the new system in select parts of the country.  According to John Brodkin of the New York Times, “the F.C.C. is proceeding carefully, letting AT&T conduct trials of the new phone system with willing consumers in parts of Alabama and Florida, that will help it measure quality and determine what kinds of rules to apply to the system.”  In essence, the new phone system is a desirable substitute because it would allow telecommunications companies to implement only one broadband network that would power the Internet, cable and telephone all in one.

While more and more people are opting for lives without landlines, they still have some concrete benefits over cellphones.  Landlines are easily more reliable than cell phones as they do not need to be charged or experience fluctuating connection strengths.  Additionally, security, particularly the lack of location data for 911 calls, is a serious concern with mobile phones.  Unlike landlines, which transmit location data automatically to 911 dispatchers over a hard-wired connection, mobile devices lack the automatic location transmission that landlines boast.  As John Kelly and Brendan Keefe of USA Today explained, “After the call comes in, the dispatcher’s computer transmits a digital request to the cellphone network seeking the phone’s location. The data exchange can take seconds or even minutes. Sometimes, it doesn’t return a location at all.”  The difference in costs between home phone systems and mobile devices has convinced many families to keep their landlines:  Current landline systems are incredibly cheap systems that sell as low as 10 dollars.  In contrast, popular mobile devices such as the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy are selling for more than 500 dollars, according to Ian Linton of EHow.

While landlines do boast many benefits unparalleled by cell phones, the facts are indisputable.  People are increasingly switching away from home phone systems, and cellular devices are moving to the forefront of American communication.  While businesses will most likely continue using landlines, it is only a matter of time before American technology renders the personal landline obsolete.