May 19, 2017

Why The Landline Telephone Isn't Dead Yet

Short History of the Modern Telephone

The first practical telephone, which enabled voices to be transmitted thousands of miles by wire transmission, was invented by Alexander Graham Bell, culminating with Mr. Bell being awarded the first U.S. patent for the telephone in 1876.  His work built heavily upon the telegraph wires which already existed.  It's safe to say that the telephone was also a major component of the internet which followed, albeit with many improvements, just as the telephone itself improved upon the telegraph.  This isn't a history lesson, but a post about how telecommunications have evolved more recently, and why mobile phones are NOT the pinnacle of modern technology.

The first mobile telephone was invented in the early 1970's, although the first commercially-available mobile telephone did not hit the U.S. market in 1983, but it wasn't purchased by anyone until 1984.  I was already 15 years old when that happened, although it's critical to be aware of the fact that the practicality of early mobile phone was quite limited both by its huge cost (the devices themselves cost nearly $4,000 in 1983 dollars) and you could only use it for a half hour before the battery gave out, plus the service was equally expensive, the first commercial cellular service in the U.S. reportedly cost $50 a month plus $0.40  a minute from 9 am to 5 pm, and $0.24 a minute in other hours, which were considered off-peak hours.  Oh, and the earliest mobile phones could only be used to make audio telephone calls, the internet as we now know it did not even exist in those days except for the U.S. military, and mobile internet was not even invented yet.

Because Gen X is the only generation to straddle both the analog and digital worlds, we have a unique perspective on the evolution.  Remember, when I say analog, I'm not kidding.

We literally dialed the telephone numbers on an analog dial, as push-button, touch-tone did not become commonplace until the late 1970's.  Although the "touchtone" or push button telephone dialing had first been invented back in the 1940's, it really wasn't until the 1970's that this type of phone largely replaced the rotary dial phone everywhere in the United States.  A variety of factors were behind the delay, among them, a significant infrastructure investment had to be made to enable touchtone dialing to work everywhere, and the investment was incomplete until the 1970's.

Landlines Aren't Dead
Along with push button dialing, there were several new convenience features added, including speed dialing, three-party calling, call waiting (enabling the user to know if another call was trying to get through), and call forwarding, all of which emerged in the 1970's.  The Bell System's primary phone manufacturer, Western Electric, also introduced several new, edgier telephone designs.

In those days, telephone service was still a government-sanctioned monopoly, with price controls.  We grew up in an era where long-distance telephone calls still charged rates by the minute (today, most phone plans enable you to call anywhere in North America for a flat rate).

1984: U.S. Government Breaks-Up AT&T's Landline Monopoly

In fact, government antitrust regulators did not even break up the original AT&T until 1984 (for  years, the old AT&T was euphemistically referred to as "Ma Bell", see HERE for news about the antitrust breakup).  By the way, the original AT&T has almost no relation to the company today known by the same name, other than the original AT&T's assets would later be acquired by one of its "Baby Bells" (Southwestern Bell, which went on a debt-fueled acquisition binge swallowing up most of the other Baby Bells except for Verizon, then known as Bell Atlantic and NYNEX) that resulted from the 1984 breakup.

Modernizing Telephone Designs, New Technologies Emerge

Previously, there were just two phone designs which hadn't changed all that much since their introduction, a desk telephone, and later, a wall-mounted telephone.  But Western Electric introduced several, groovy new phone designs during the 1960's which became more mainstream in the decade that followed.  One of the best in my opinion was the "Trimline" phone, which was a sleeker version of the classic telephone, with a curvy handset that included the dialing or touchtone mechanism on it instead of on the base.  This design was widely copied by other companies.  The "Princess" phone was another design aimed more at women (hence the name).  There was also  the so-called Sculptura or donut phone.  All were eventually available in a number of colors aside from black or white which were very popular in the 1960's and 1970's (much driven by major kitchen appliance manufacturers), including Harvest Gold, Avocado Green, Cherry Red, Baby Blue and Orange/Rust colors.  One of the more famous designs was the licensed Mickey Mouse phone in which Mickey's hand held a standard Western Electric phone handpiece.

For the record, a newer variation of the Sculptura phone was being sold by a Hong Kong company, only it was not a Western Electric phone, it was called a Polyconcept handbag phone.  If you shop around online, you can likely still find some retailers who sell this corded donut phone model.  Its not an exact replica of the Sculptura phone, but its pretty darn close and as of 2017, you can still find it for sale at a few places for a 50 year old phone that's no longer made.

With the 1984 Bell System breakup, a host of new handset manufacturers emerged, many low-quality Asian products (Taiwan was the place of origin for most, as mainland China would not emerge as a low-cost manufacturing hub until decades after the historic Richard Nixon visit to China in 1972).  What really differentiated Western Electric's phones was quality construction and the ability to continue working even after extremely tough abuse.  But it came with a very high price, which in 1984 was forced to be itemized as a phone receiver rental fee.


The AT&T archive has a short clip of some vintage, 1970's advertisements for some of these "Design Line" telephones.  The basic content of the phones were largely the same (same dials/keypads, same ringers, same handsets, same wiring), but these were designer versions of landline phones meant to fit into a more modern household of the era.  The ad appears below, or at https://youtu.be/CyVe3dD-1mE:


Gen Xers also embraced the advent of digitization and helped make that commonplace.  For example, before voicemail was ubiquitous, answering services were used by doctors' offices, and then analog answering machines with audio tapes were also, later introduced.   But manufacturers were quick to introduce digital versions with newer features which enabled voice messages to be retrieved remotely from locations other than where the answering machine was physically located.  Around the mid-to-late 1980's to the early 1990's, rising popularity of answering machines, voicemail and caller ID began to undermine the pervasiveness of audio telephone calls.  It became possible to choose whether to speak to someone before answering their phone call.  Gen X embraced caller ID when that was introduced, as that truly enabled us to identify who was calling in advance, and make a decision whether they were worthy of our time.  Of course, something is lost when actual audio conversations completely disappear (Salon.com's Timothy Noah wrote about it HERE).

With all this in mind, today's post is about how reports on the imminent death of the landline telephone are exaggerated.  First, let's look at the actual data.

Data Shows a Less Flattering Picture of Mobile Phone-Only Consumers

In spite of boastful claims made by mobile phone providers and device manufacturers, they have only recently (and just barely) become a majority of the phones used by consumers in the U.S., but the data reveals more about those who have landlines compared to those who do not.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (the CDC's) National Center for Health Statistics gathers data on all kinds of trends about the state of Americans' health.  The in-person survey of 19,956 households is part of the CDC's National Health Interview Survey, still tracks landline use in order to assure it has truly representative samples in its ongoing health studies. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 1 percentage point.

According to its most recent survey (see https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhis/earlyrelease/wireless201705.pdf for the results to that survey), 50.8% of homes and apartments had ONLY mobile phone service (which admittedly is up from 41% just 3 years ago) in the latter half of 2016, the first time such households had attained a slight majority in the survey.  The share of homes with both landlines and mobile phones was 39.4% (down from 47.7% 3 years ago), while 6.5% of families have a landline without mobile phone service, and 3.2% have no phone service at home at all.  Of note is that the CDC survey is the only one in the federal government's statistical system that is even tracking this estimate, and it plans to keep doing so.  Naturally, the pro-mobile phone folks were all over these results showing their supposed victory over landlines.  But the reality tells a different story.

Renters and younger adults are more likely to have just a mobile phone, so a predictable skew of young vs. old and non-affluent vs. affluent shows up in the results, but that over-simplifies the findings.  For example, rates of mobile phone-only homes were highest in the South, while homes in the Northeast were the most likely to still maintain landlines.  But this finding goes beyond incomes which are inversely correlated to cutting landlines, as well as the regional skews in income, which is higher in the Northeast compared to the South.  Instead, it speaks to a much more practical reality: it's much more feasible to rely only on mobile services in a region like the South where signals are less likely to be interrupted by great hills and skyscrapers (at least in major population centers) that can block mobile phone signals, as is the case in the Northeast.

Mobile phone-only homes have some other commonalities. "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). "There certainly is something about giving up a landline that appeals to the same people who may engage in risky behavior".  Why that's so will require further research.

The picture of mobile-only users isn't terribly flattering overall.  They drink more heavily, are more likely to be smokers and less likely to have healthcare insurance, and are more heavily concentrated in the South.  People with mobile phones exclusively are more to be living with unrelated roommates, and be renters rather than homeowners, and skew more heavily Hispanic and black rather than white.  Not exactly the image that mobile phone device makers and mobile carriers like to present with ads of attractive, young, smartly-dressed, affluent Millennials featured in their advertising, is it?

As The Atlantic reported (see HERE), the overall picture is that the more stable your living situation, the more likely you are to have a landline.  And, just as richer Americans have the means to adopt new technology like mobile phones early, they also have the means to hang on to the old technology they are already attached to, like landlines, longer: Why choose one when you can have both?

Reasons the Landline Isn't Dead Yet, and Likely to be Around for a While Longer

The landline harkens to an era in which a telephone number was still tied to a household, rather than to an individual.  I'm old enough to remember the era where landlines were still king.  In fact, your telephone number could also enable someone to identify a relatively small radius where you actually lived.  Area codes identified which state or which part of a state you lived in, and the 3-digit prefix was typically assigned to a particular community or neighborhood.

Then again, people still had telephone conversations back then.  The fact is that as of late 2016, the primary purpose of most people's primary telephones was no longer to engage in audible speech.  In fact, text messages occur five times more frequently on mobile phones than do audio telephone calls.  Today, when you see people using their mobile phones on the streets of New York City, for example, 75% (or more) aren't even talking on the phone, they're listening to music, or using internet-enabled apps, including social media.  Another example:  as recently as a decade ago, I can remember the phones in my office were constantly ringing (you get used to it after a while), but all of that kind of stopped being an issue around the time that a lot of Millennials started working, whom I've found as a group are much more likely to use email as their primary means of communication.  It doesn't even occur to them to pick up the phone and call someone, which is kind of strange for a group of people who have been described as people who have grown up using mobile 'phones'.  Instead, they can better be described as people grew up using mobile 'devices' which are essentially low-powered, pocket-sized computers -- likely anything but the phone component, except on limited occasions such as when someone calls them.

Back to the household ownership of a phone number.  While there is an age factor behind the householding of numbers, a lot comes from growing up where (and living with for several decades) landlines were the ONLY kind of phone.  For me, it means that when my phone rings, I've never instinctively reached for a mobile phone to make or receive a call (even with a retro-ringtone), mainly because I came of age when I literally paid for every minute of the call, so I was forced to limit my use of the mobile device, which instilled a sense of my mobile phone being secondary.  Also, I never hear the mobile phone ringing when its charging in the other room.  Plus, as noted, the darn mobile phone's batteries are seemingly always running out of power, which is a hassle.

Television & Movie History of Gen X and Telephones

I grew up when we quite literally still dialed telephone numbers on a rotary dial, and the advent of push-button, touch-tone calling was seen as a big advancement to be celebrated.  Think of episodes of the Brady Bunch and you see early seasons featured rotary-dial phones, then later push-button phones, and that is very much the era I grew up in (in fact, an entire episode on telephones entitled "Sorry, Right Number" [S1/E9] in which the father got a pay telephone installed at the Brady's house was dedicated to the subject).  The development of cordless phones was something that eliminated a long tangle of really long cords.  I have first-hand memories of the first cell phones being quite literally the size and weight of bricks -- think of Christian Bale's character in the movie "American Psycho" as an example.

Christian Bale on a mobile phone in "American Psycho"
Mobile phone services also cost a fortune, making a cost of several hundred dollars for a new phone seem tiny by comparison.  More importantly, I was already nearly 20 years old when it first mobile phone hit the market, so my phone-using habits were already very well-established.  Although mobile phone technology has advanced considerably since then, I still judge any telephone based on reliability of the calls (dropped calls, for example, are kind of a deal-breaker for me, and while having a great network alleviates some of that, remember that all calls consist of 2 parties [sometimes more], so you can be on the best network around, but if the other party isn't, it hasn't solved anything).  Along with all of those issues, I've just always seen call mobility as a solution in search of a problem that does not exist.  Its handy when travelling, but it doesn't offer much I can't get elsewhere with much better results.

Landline Downsides

Landlines certainly have their own issues, one of the most notable being extremely high costs that never went down, plus a whole barrage of useless fees and taxes, which was a major reason I tried switching to using my cell phone only.  But that was never something I truly wanted.  As devices, mobile phones are convenient, but as telephones, they aren't the greatest for making phone calls.  Their touch screens are a nuisance, especially if you are calling a company with an automated voice response unit (VRU).  Perhaps their biggest weakness is the limited life of the battery.  Also, even though I live in the biggest city in the country, where my apartment building is located means I don't get a good mobile phone signal at home, although I am able to use Wi-Fi calling when I'm at home.  But spotty and inconsistent reception for mobile phones remains a serious limitation.  In parts of the country where the landscape is pretty flat, that's not a major issue, but in other parts of the country where the landscape is dotted with big hills and/or skyscrapers, it's a huge problem.

Several years ago, I contemplated dumping my landline telephone and using my mobile phone exclusively.  The expense was redundant, so I did dump it -- briefly.  But that experiment only lasted about a month, and I hated every second of it.  I went back to having a landline at home (well, sort of a landline), more on that in a second.

Pros and Cons to Landlines and Mobile Phones

While is nice to have internet access from a mobile phone when I'm out, my middle-aged eyes have trouble seeing on a 5-inch screen (and I have a relatively large mobile phone screen, adjusted with bigger font settings), so the cell phone is more of an extra, but not my primary telephone number.  As noted, the battery life on most mobile devices stinks, necessitating carrying around an extra battery, charger and/or cables.  For some twenty-to-thirty-somethings, it's a guarantee that they'll be here someday, too.  I know that makes me a dinosaur from another era, but it's worth mentioning that my parents aren't paying any of my bills for me (see http://nyti.ms/2lrw8eV for more), so I've found pre-paid plans which more often target immigrants or other lower-income groups actually works well for me, as my mobile phone isn't central to my existence, so there's no reason to pay a fortune for it.  When Mom & Dad stop helping out, perhaps we'll see more young hipsters rethink their own priorities, though I expect the kids who once waited in line for hours and hours for the newest iPhone won't go exactly the same route I have.

The RAND Corporation conducted research (see HERE for details) validates that the landline isn't dead ... at least not yet.

That said, the presumption that landlines are already dead is not based on fact, but wishful thinking.  The decline of analog telephone service has taken hundreds of years, and even that is not necessarily driven by functional obsolescence, but by the emergence of newer (and in many cases, cheaper technologies).  And, importantly, its not mobile technology exclusively, but also by growth of broadband internet services that can replace landlines without eliminating functionality and simultaneously reducing costs.

In November 2011, Wired magazine, for example, declared a new design for the landline to be dead before it even hit the market (see the article at https://www.wired.com/2011/11/beautiful-swooping-landline-phone-is-sadly-foredoomed/ for more).  Fortunately, or unfortunately (depending on your perspective), the prediction wasn't too far off, although the reasoning certainly was.  In fact, dozens of manufacturers in China (the designer was based in Hong Kong anyway) and elsewhere would make it, but the economics of landlines has changed making sales more of a challenge.  But high-tech designs can still win buyers.  I'm not at all bothered by still having a landline.  Well, sort of.

VoIP Phones Go Mainstream

Rather than going with a mobile phone only (which I don't care for), I compromised with a hybrid-solution that works great for me: a voice-over-internet-protocol (a VoIP-based) solution which uses my broadband internet to make and receive telephone calls (I pay for broadband anyway rather than sharing it with 20 people who live around me) only it's not linked to my internet provider, so I can readily switch from Verizon Fios to Time Warner/Spectrum cable, to RCN or another competitor).

I also find the internet much better at a computer with a real keyboard and monitor rather than a tiny, touch-screen on a mobile phone, which as an experience leaves much to be desired.  Cable companies  and other internet providers now routinely offer "triple play" packages, although I initially went with Vonage [https://www.vonage.com/], but I then switched to Ooma [http://www.ooma.com/], slashing my costs progressively with each change to the point that my "landline" now costs me less than a cup of coffee at Starbucks.    You can also create a fee-free VoIP landline for your home and/or office using Google Voice, and it does not require significant hardware acquisitions.  Its done by purchasing an OBi Talk device (a small box that plugs into your Internet router).  After a simple PC-based setup, the OBi then connects to your Google Voice account and acts as a portal to your Google Voice account much like Vonage or Ooma do without requiring a landline or cell phone that the service is forwarded to (see HERE for more details; note that Google has not committed to provide continued official support to VoIP  service forever, but it works as I write this)  Also note that Google Voice/OBi does NOT provide 911 service, so you must use third-party providers to get that, or simply add the local phone numbers for fire, police and paramedics to your speed-dial list).  I should also note that a great many businesses have migrated to VoIP-phone systems too, with companies like Shoretel, 8x8 and others providing services previously handled by analog landlines.

Note that the CDC's definition of a landline actually DOES include for Internet-connected phones — also known as VoIP phones — because the question that's asked in the survey is: "Do you have a telephone in your home that is currently working and is not a cellphone?"

To be sure, the major mobile phone carriers don't really like people like me, but neither do the legacy landline carriers on internet service providers.  The irony is that I do not deprive myself of technology at all.  But my mobile phone has never really been central to my existence, and I still use my 'landline' phone at home for actually making telephone calls.

Newspaper reporter Sherri Gardner Howell (a Baby Boomer herself) eloquently put it (see http://knoxne.ws/2eZczMb for the article) like this:  "You can still get a Gen Xer to talk to you on the cellphone, for example, but you might as well forget it and just text the Millennial."

See also http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2015/12/03/458225197/the-daredevils-without-landlines-and-why-health-experts-are-tracking-them

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