Americans Disconnecting Their Landlines

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Americans Disconnecting Their Landlines


by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News


When we were very young the family would regularly go to the “family cottage” up on Lake Minnewaska during the summers. It was a small cottage on the south side of the lake sitting high on the hill that had been built in 1924 and was shared by the Johnson family relatives – our dad’s mother was a Johnson.

Each weekend when we would arrive at the lake we would have to run down to a mosquito-infested ravine to get several pails of water. It ran from a pipe that had been driven into the side of the ravine wall and had a steady flow of clear, cold water running from it. We would use that water to prime the hand pump in the cottage so that we would have running water for the weekend. There was an outhouse there in those early days as well.

But an outhouse and hand pump weren’t the most memborable features of that old cottage – it was the hand-cranked wooden box phone on the wall. If we remember right, the cottage ring was two shorts and a long. At any time if a curious kid wanted to pick that party-line phone up, he could maybe listen in to someone else’s conversation – we didn’t do that much with our parents quickly telling us to respect the privacy of others.

How things have changed! Outhouses and hand pumps went out many decades ago. But we always thought the home phone, in one fashion or another, would be around far, far into the future. That doesn’t appear to be the case anymore.
Though he wasn’t the first to invent the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell was the first to patent the landline phone in 1876. Thirty-two years earlier in Italy Innocenzo Manzetti had come up with the idea of a “speaking telegraph” that would use a landline to carry a voice rather than just clicks over the telegraph. As they say, “The rest is history.”

Telephone service exploded across the U.S. and Europe in the following decades with phones becoming indispensable for homes and businesses. But just as the wireless technology and the cellphone have disrupted so much of the old ways of doing things they have changed the need to have a wire copper line running to your home.

It was inevitable that at some point cellphones would replace landlines as the dominant mode of voice communications in the residential abodes around the country.

According to a recently completed study by the federal Centers for Disease Control that point was reached sometime between 2014 and 2015. Today, the CDC estimates that 50.8 percent of homes and apartments in America don’t have a landline, based on an in-person survey of 19,956 people in 2016 with the results published last week.

You may wonder why the CDC would be the institution conducting a survey of the number of households in the country that no longer have a landline. As it studies health care trends in America, the U.S. Census Bureau conducts more than 40,000 in-person interviews annually. This survey leads the Census Bureau interviewers to talk with people who have only cellphones, those who have landlines and a cellphone (39.4 percent of the U.S. population), those who have a landline but no cellphone (6.5 percent), and those who have no telephone at all – 3.3 percent.

Knowing who makes up each of these four groups is essential to the CDC understanding who it would be missing when it did its own telephone surveys of health trends and issues in the country. While the CDC now includes cellphone numbers in its surveys, those numbers aren’t as easy to get and many people resent getting a non-personal call on their cellphones. It would also give the CDC an idea of the demographic makeup of those who were the primary cell-phone-only-at-home people.

Those who have both a cellphone and a landline give a number of reasons for having both – they are handy for finding your cellphone when you lose it in the house; it is comforting to have a landline for your kids to call on; there are lots of times when you don’t hear your cellphone ringing – it might be in another room, in your purse, dead and charging somewhere, or you forgot it on silent after having it at work or at a meeting. A landline rings all the time and rings throughout the house. People with poor cellphone service also keep their landlines more often.

People with businesses that want to ensure their customers can reach them at home also still have landlines.

And, landlines are powered by the current in the copper line not the power that comes into your house for your lights. So if the power goes out for an extended time, and you can’t recharge your cellphone, your landline is still a link to the outside world.

Those who have ditched their landlines generally see it as an unnecessary expense. This group tends to be young adults whose incomes may be lower or families with both parents working at jobs that don’t pay that well. Renters are also among this group. Young people see landlines as old technology they no longer need. Those fed up with telemarketers may get rid of their landlines. But some of the findings aren’t so benign.

“Wireless-only adults are more likely to drink heavily, more likely to smoke and be uninsured,” even after factoring for age and income, says Stephen J. Blumberg, the study’s co-author (and a landline user himself), told Associated Press Technology Writer Anick Jesdanun. “There certainly is something about giving up a landline that appeals to the same people who may engage in risky behavior.”

But this demographic is increasingly being joined by people from all walks of life and living habits. Many children growing up today have never had a landline in their home. It is inevitable that landline use will continue to drop as cellphone technology continues to evolve toward horizons we can hardly imagine.

Imagine how amazed that inventor of the wood box party-line phone would be by today’s hand-held, mobile phones that are also sophisticated wireless computers. Will that leap be replicated by one that sees us all with communication devices implanted in our heads with harmless batteries that are recharged by our body’s own energy? It’s being studied as we write these words.

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