Consumers hanging up on landlines

Person talking on land line telephone.


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.

Log in to post4 Comments

I'm in the process of dropping my landline, cost is one factor, consistency is another, but the main reason is security. I've had ID theft issue in the past, and my land line number is the only one I've ever had, now that I am moving, the phone company says, "Sorry sir, you are in a different area, we have to give you a new number" Sorry Ma Bell you are the sorry one ...... I’m porting my number to mobile.

In the interest of disclosure I am an employee of T-Mobile USA, working as part of the Enterprise IT group. I DO NOT, however, speak for or on behalf of T-Mobile USA or affiliated entities.

In an ad-hoc poll of my fellow employees that have had the HotSpot @Home (TM) service since late 2007 I have heard _no_ complaints about call quality or handling problems since the first few weeks of the service. This includes a mix of DSL and cable service in their homes, and despite occasional service interruptions to their home internet connections.

The handsets and service devices do monitor the quality of the service in use and will switch back to the cell network if it offers better quality.

I cannot see where we are talking about moving from a cellular connection back to a landline (copper or fiber). The move of the technology at this point has been towards the elimination of the landline altogether, replacing it with an IP-based service that is independent of any one access method, meaning it will work via cell networks or via internet connections, as the @Home service does now.

The increasing performance of wireless technologies in general coupled with lower infrastructure costs will someday lead to the elimination of copper and probably even fiber "to the door", even if this sounds as "far-fetched" as the idea of "going cell-only" for phone service did only a few years ago. At that point all home services, for entertainment or communications, will be wireless at speeds comparable to or better than today's fiber technology.

Scot Harkins

Thanks for your comment, Art. I would hasten to point out, however, that Ashley's story talks about the switch to a landline from a cell connection, not a transfer to a wifi network. TMobile does indeed allow a connection to a hotspot in your home (or anywhere else, for that matter), but internet telephony connections don't offer the clarity and reliability of a terrestrial connection. And that's the technological leap we're talking about here. (I'm Ashley's editor, by the way)

In your story you said that the technology where a cell phone would swith to a local phone service was at least a decade away. That is not true. T-Mobile introduced a technology last year where your cell phone will switch to a Wifi connection inside your home. The technology even alows a coversation to move between the two networks seemlessly. You can even pay a small fee to receive unlimited calling on the home wifi network. It's a great option for those users where the coverage is not idea or just want to ditch their home phone.

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