Consumers hanging up on landlines
Person talking on land line telephone.
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Bob Moon: Hey, you, in the car, drop the phone!
As of today, it's against the law to hold a cell phone to your ear while driving in the states of California and Washington. They join a handful of other states that already limit drivers to hands-fee talking. Some critics complain the real danger is driving under the influence of a distracting conversation.
Then again, talking on a cell phone has become second nature for a lot of us. A recent survey found almost 16 percent of us have only wireless phone service, up from 6 percent just four years ago. Ashley Milne-Tyte has been dialing into the benefits and drawbacks of that phenomenon.
Ashley Milne-Tyte: Many of those who've abandoned their landlines are like these three guys, who spoke in Manhattan's Bryant Park last week.
Person One: I only have a cell phone because I'm never really home.
Person Two: I moved and realized that I didn't need it and I solely relied on cell phones, so it made no sense to have a landline.
Person Three: Yeah, it was too expensive, that's why I dropped it. So, I just kept the cell phone so I won't have to deal with that. That's just a extra bill.
They're young, unattached and thrifty. They're also lucky enough to live in a city with good cell phone reception.
Siva Vaidhyanathan teaches media studies and law at the University of Virginia. He says there's much less incentive to drop your landline if you live in a rural area.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: Once you get off of the major cities of the East Coast and the West Coast, it's real easy to find dead spots where mobile phones don't work very well. And I think that notion of dependability and reliability and familiarity is an important part of the fact that a lot of people are going to hold onto this stuff.
Vaidhyanathan says landlines aren't particularly expensive, especially compared to some other countries. But if you're short of cash, why spend it on a phone you don't need? Vaidhyanathan says one portion of the cell-phone-only class is made up of poorer people, from recent college grads to new immigrants. The other he says, features the well off, highly educated tech lover.
Jeff Kagan is a telecom industry analyst. He says those techies will probably like what phone companies have in the pipeline. A single phone on a single service that does the job of both landline and cell.
Vaidhyanathan: The local telephone companies will be able to deliver a service where your wireless phone works wirelessly when you're out of your home or when you're out of your office. But when you come into the house it senses the phone and it turns the phone off of the wireless network and logs it on to the wireline network.
Kagan says it could be a decade or so before we see that technology in place. In the meantime, Siva Vaidyhanathan says more and more consumers are opting for a wireless existence, and that could be a boon for all cell phone users.
Jeff Kagan: I think that the movement from landlines to mobile phones is going to put more pressure on these companies to treat us better.
Take those contracts that lock you in for years. Vaidhyanathan and his wife moved from New York to Virginia last year. They found their cell phones didn't work in Charlottsville. Still, they each had to fork out $200 to cancel their contracts. He says things like this don't happen in Europe and they shouldn't happen here.
Vaidhyanathan: We are gonna have to become very active in making sure that both Congress and the FCC understand that we as consumers need a better deal.
Deal or no deal, Jeff Kagan says consumers will use their cell phones more and more. But they won't necessarily be talking. He says there's been a huge explosion in the stuff you can do on a cell phone over the last year or so, and it's set to continue.
Kagan: So, this device that we carry that we're gonna be able to use to make a phone call is gonna be mostly used to access data and to surf the Web and to watch television or to send messages.
And maybe to have the occasional old-fashioned conversation.
In New York, I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.