Data for GOOD Design

The Slow Extinction of the American Landline

by Gina D. Wagner

October 22, 2015

Depending on where you’re from and how old you are, you may be shocked by the following information: Most American homes—54.6 percent of them—still have a landline, according to a report from the National Center for Health Statistics release this past June. Perhaps less surprising? Millennials are tilting that ratio in the other direction. More than two-thirds of adults aged 25 to 29 (69.2 percent) and 30 to 34 (67.4 percent) live in homes with only wireless phones. And they’re not alone. The bulk of kids under 18 have never had a landline, while older generations are starting to cut the cord, too.

Overall, the cell-phone-only population has grown 70 percent since 2010, and 4.4 percent since 2013. It may be hard to believe, but only a decade ago, nine out of 10 U.S. households were dependent on landlines. As reported in The Atlantic, “It took landlines until 1975 to achieve the prevalence that mobile has today.” Michael Pennell, Ph.D, an electrical engineer and high-speed communications expert based in Phoenix, says that more and more Americans value the portability offered by mobile phones, along with the ability to decline unwanted calls and dodge telemarketers.

“With the popularity of technologies like smartphones, Google Voice, VoIP (internet phone services), and tablets, there is a real momentum in home telecom to move away from traditional copper landlines,” he adds. Those copper phone lines are deteriorating, and many phone companies no longer see the point in investing the time, money, and manpower necessary to maintain them.

Yet millions of Americans are landline loyalists. A study last year from Pew Research Center revealed that 17 percent of U.S. adults described their landline phones as being “very hard to give up.”  It’s the kind of statement that Pennell attributes to fear and habit. “There’s fear that 911 services won’t be readily available unless you dial from a landline,” he says. And in many ways, that fear is a valid one—landlines are inherently tied to exact locations, while cell phone 911 calls must rely on nearby towers and GPS signals, which can be inaccurate or blocked entirely, especially when calls are made indoors.

It’s not all about anticipating an emergency, however. A small number Americans still have fax machines in their homes, and many home security systems today require the use of a landline. Which might be why the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) passed regulations this past August requiring phone companies to give three months advance warning to customers before disabling old copper phone lines and switching them over to new technology. The FCC also ruled that internet providers must offer back-up batteries to support fiber optic lines in case of power outages or flooding.

For many, however, wireless phones would never be a back-up: They’re a necessity. The NCHS reports that for adults in rented homes, as well as for those living below the poverty line, landlines are a rarity. Renters are inherently more transient, making landlines a burdensome commitment. And for low-income Americans, pay-as-you-go cell phones—including many smartphones—are simply cheaper than landlines. According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2015, nearly two-thirds of Americans own at least one smartphone. Ten percent rely entirely on their phone’s data plan to access the internet.

And despite the fears of the tethered 17 percent, about 70 percent of 911 calls are made from cell phones, according to the FCC, which discussed that scary location tracking issue in recent congressional hearings. One easy solution is already being put into place: Operators are trained to ask for a caller’s location first, before they describe their emergency. Besides, landlines aren’t perfect. Lawmakers also pointed out that in a natural disaster like a flood or an earthquake, many people are unable to dial 911 using a landline, due to damage to those aging copper wire systems—not to mention the fact that even landline users tend to have cordless phones, so they require power that could go out in a crisis.

The wisest move, for those who can afford it, might be to keep both their cell phones and their landlines active—at least until landlines go the way of the Walkman or VCR. A report from the U.K. estimates that landlines will be extinct by 2025. In the United States, it could be much sooner, according statistics portal Statista. One of their analysts, Felix Richter, says that “if the trend continues at the current pace, and there’s little reason to believe it won’t, the majority of U.S. households could be without a landline phone as early as this year.”

Illustration by Brian Hurst. Thumbnail image via Flickr user Daniel Oines (cc).

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The Slow Extinction of the American Landline