The long slow death of the landline

The CDC reports that more than one third of American homes are now landline-free, with six in ten adults aged under 30 living in households with only wireless phones.

In a study carried out as part of the National Health Interview Survey, 35.8 percent of all respondents reported having only cellular telephones. A further 15.9 percent reported that while they had landlines, they received all or almost all their calls on their mobiles.

While 34 percent of all adults now live in households with only cellular phones, the number jumps to 40.6 percent when limited to households with children. Fifty-eight percent of renters and 76 percent of adults living with roommates reported having only cellphones. The growth is slowing, though, with the 1.8 percent six-month increase in landline-less homes being the lowest jump since 2008.

Even the elderly are abandoning their landlines, albeit slowly: for the first time, more than 1 in 10 of those aged 65 or more reported living mobile-only.

Early Release of Estimates From the National Health Interview Survey, January–June 2012 [PDF link]


  1. I actually looked at adding a landline again, as a back-up in case of cellular network failure. Not worth it. It’s sad that a landline costs more than cellular service now, even more-so if you want to add “expected” services like call waiting and voicemail. I think in another generation- a phone “line” is going to be a dinosaur like tape players and floppy disks.

    1. I suppose it depends upon where you live.

      I have poor cellular signal here in the apartment, and there’s a good chance power outages would render cell phones useless.

      Expect it to linger on in places like Homer, AK, where the population is low and the weather seldom cooperates.

      1. Good point! Cell reception’s just fine here, but when the power gets knocked out and your cell dies/the network gets overloaded, the reliability of a landline starts to look pretty nice.

        1. Landlines are not immune to overload in disaster conditions. Landlines where I live are subject to more damage from hurricanes, and cellular is easier to deploy in an emergency.

          1. What’s nice about landlines is that they are designed to degrade gracefully in an emergency.  If a landline’s central office switch is overloaded, you won’t get dial tone initially — but you will be put in a queue to get dial tone, and you’ll be able to place a phone call eventually if you just keep the phone off hook and wait for the dial tone.  When a cell tower is overloaded, there’s no queuing: you simply aren’t going to get through until the overload subsides; and when the 2-hour battery at your local cell site runs out, the point is moot anyway.

            That’s the nice thing about using infrastructure that was actually *designed* to work as a life-safety system in trans- and post-disaster scenarios, rather than something designed as a consumer-grade toy.  

            Nobody builds stuff as bulletproof as the Bell System anymore.

          2. Unfortunately the POTS network (Plain old telephone system) isn’t as bulletproof as it once was, in most areas it has been upgraded to fibre lines up to the last mile, meaning they often only have a 2 or 4 hour emergency battery and then will be offline.  On top of this, I can’t count the number of people who forget to keep a basic no frills corded phone in the house so when the power goes out and their base station with it, none of their cordless home phones work.

            That being said, it’s always good to have a backup, especially if you rely on your phone for work.

    2. The costs are especially disproportionate if you are a light user. $20 at any CVS will get you a nasty prepaid burner handset, and ~$100 a year will keep the line lit and provide a thousand odd minutes(you can probably do better if you shop harder; but it gets hard to work up the enthusiasm).

      A landline, after taxes, sneaky-fees, universal-911-to-the-sticks-or-something charges, etc, etc. you’ll be lucky to end up paying less than $25/month.

      Also, depending on how the POTS infrastructure in your area is handled(a fact that you won’t exactly be offered on a silver platter, if you can even find somebody on the customer-service side who knows what you are asking about), ‘landline-as-backup’ may not be nearly so useful as it once was.

      Cellular services tend to crumple under atypically high load, and the in-home VOIP stuff(either a third-party VOIP provider, or something bundled with fiber or cable internet) only stays lit as long as your house does; but team telco has been steadily pruning the amount of the telephone network that is actually aggressively-battery-backed line-switched copper in favor of much cheaper more-or-less-VOIP-but-with-a-legacy-copper-last-mile. That isn’t going to stay up any longer than the local aggregation point does.

      1. I notice this study didn’t differentiate between VOIP in-home service and true copper service either.

        Assuming the trend will continue, rural POTS-only areas will be in for an unpleasant surprise as fewer customers pay the USFs to subsidize the high-cost service areas.

        1. Or…the USF will gradually increase as fewer and fewer people pay them, until eventually there’s just one guy somewhere in Springfield paying $718,537,842 per month to subsidise rural phone access.

    3. I only have a landline, no cell phone. Bundled with cable internet (and including free voicemail and unlimited calling to the US and Canada), it’s cheaper than a cell phone.

      1. I pay $19/month for unlimited, unthrottled, and uncapped voice, data, and text through Republic Wireless.  Your ‘landline’, if bundled with your Internet, is actually VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) instead of POTS (plain old telephone service).

  2. I went wireless-only in 1996. At the time it actually caused some problems–pizza places would not deliver to houses that didn’t have land lines and credit card companies were a little leery as well.

    I recently moved to a rural area and my cell phone service is very spotty, so I’m back to a land line.

  3. I think I’m in denial. I first read the headline as the much more hopeful, “The long, slow death of the landmine.”

    I guess I’m going to be forced to get a consarned cell phone one of these days. Probably in 2020 or ’21, if that graph line continues its goldarned slope. Dagnabbit.

  4. I have a land line only for DSL (no television so no cable). Never made a call on it for years. Once fiber comes to my area, good bye crappy AT&T!

    No one pays attention to area codes anymore, we just have 10 digit phone numbers now. Only in more rural parts of the country, or people from there, do I ask for a phone number and they start with the number without the area code.

    1.  Not exactly true. I live in a 3rd tier city with a metro population of ~600k and only one area code. Everyone still uses 7 digit numbers here.

      My family lives in a slightly larger 2nd tier city with a metro population of ~1 million and only one area code. Same story – everyone there still uses 7 digits when passing phone numbers back and forth.

      1. I live in the 760 area code, which covers a territory the size of Eriador.  My city has 43K people, with 250K in the immediate environs. We’ve been saddled with using ten digit numbers for about five years now rather than splitting the region.

    2. I’ll have a land line as long as it is the only way to get DSL. I refuse to get filtered, shaped, metered and monitored Internet service from Comcast.

    3. You can call AT&T and request “dry-loop” DSL. You still get DSL, but no way no actual ability to make phone calls. It should cut your bill a little bit. (Mine is $40 and no extra fees like Universal Carrier Fee, etc.)

      If not, tell ’em “to hell with it, I am switching to [insert whatever hideous cable provider you are stuck with in your area].” 

      I have spoken to far too many  AT&T customer service reps over the past year (for DSL and for wireless) and they seem to have an astonishingly large amount of leeway in what they can offer to either retain a customer or “satisfy” an angry customer. 

      If that doesn’t work, you can always call back and ask for customer retention and say, “here is the deal cable company is giving me. What are you going to give me to keep me?”

  5. What’s crazy to me is that, should one find oneself in jail, one can only call a land line, as one can’t call a cell phone collect…

    1. Prisons are not a facet of the hospitality industry known for having to compete very hard on occupant satisfaction… Even if you have a landline to call to, the pricing reflects, shall we say, an, er, ‘captive audience’…

      1.  True enough, but even if you’re not in prison, and say, in the drunk tank at your local county jail, your stay will be long extended if you don’t have  buddy with a land line.Makes it MUCH harder to contact the outside world if your arrested for any reason, such as peaceful protest, etc…

  6. After watching what happened to the cell phone network during the Sandy aftermath, to say nothing of the lengths that people would go to in order to get their phones charged, I would give up my mobile and go back to being landline-only before I’d give up the landline.

    That silly little 90v 20hz ringtone signal has better resiliency engineering behind it than many multi-gigabuck datacenters, to say nothing of quite a few more years of experience to shake out any flaws.

    1. Yeah, there was a lot of everything out. Cell phones were not that bad off, you just had to charge them, which would have been the same problem I would have had at home because I only had a wireless home phone for the last few years I even had a landline. 

  7. Now would be an awfully good time to pressure your state governments to update the 911 system to triangulate the location of cellular calls and direct them to the closest appropriate emergency responder. As far as I know, only 8 California cities have that upgrade in part or in full.

  8. land line = telemarketer calls      that’s why mine is gone.   when they call my cell?  I swear like the potty mouth I am, screaming ‘remove me from you &^*&^##)&^ list or i will hunt you down like a dog”         it seems to work.   whenever the BIG California earthquake happens, and my cell does not work?  it won’t matter if I have a landline either.

      1. Those drones often don’t make minimum wage, they make a fair premium above that, because it’s not exactly a fun job to have.  My snippy responses, hang ups and general obtuseness help protect that high wage.

        1. News flash: There is no strong correlation between how much fun a job is and how much it pays, unless I’ve missed all those millionaire busboys and janitors strutting their stuff.

  9. What stuns me is that our government offers discounts for phone service to the financially disadvantaged and this most often is applied to cell phone service. I see the justification for everyone to have the ability to contact emergency services or for the sake of job hunting, but the program should be limited to landlines. Landline phones do one thing – verbal communication – and they do that efficiently and with superior clarity. Cell phones, on the other hand, are 90% plaything and rarely used for verbal communication at all!

    1. So? Why the hell should the poor be saddled with a fiscally unjustifiable (because cellphones are no longer more costly than landlines) requirement of being saddled with outdated technology? Because you think they just don’t deserve modern amenities?

    2. Maybe that’s how you use your cellphone. Why should we prop up an aging, decaying communications network so you can make sure nobody who is subsidized gets a moment of pleasure out of their communication device?

    3. We should also make sure that food that is purchased with food stamps is dry and tasteless, too, lest the poor forget for a moment that they are bad people.

    4. Spectrum is ultimately more limited by ye olde laws of physics than hardline is, since you can’t just run another fiber when the first one is filled; but the marginal cost of adding another subscriber to an existing cell network is absolute peanuts(unlike a copper line, which has to be maintained, supplied with power, and whatnot, a cell subscriber is just a few database entries except when they are actively using their phone).

      Especially given the tendency of the impecunious to move fairly frequently, it would almost certainly cost substantially more to keep them supplied with POTS lines than with some spartan cell plan. If you really want to inflict some morally pleasing punishment, you could always gimp the firmware in assorted ways; but cell connectivity is the cheap seats now. Copper is only cheap if it was installed and paid for years ago and ma bell is just milking it now, and fiber is generally only cost effective among heavy data customers.

  10. Land lines still have one killer feature that cell phones haven’t come close on. No, it isn’t their reliability and availability. No, it isn’t their ability to transmit the human voice intelligibly. It’s the basic party line feature one gets that allows one or two of us to participate easily in a call. Yes, I know you can do this with a cell phone by setting up a conversation call and connecting a third party, but that is a lot more work than just picking up a handset. To be honest, I’m not even sure how to do this with my cellphone. My iPhone, with its supposedly intuitive interface, doesn’t have an add third party or join conversation button.

    Now, I’m probably a weirdo, because I live with another person with whom I have friends and relatives in common. Who does that anymore? I’m probably even more of an outlier in that we enjoy sitting down and having a three or four way conversation that might last for hours. Surely, I should get with it and join the cell phone generation and live alone and have nothing to say to my friends and loved ones that cannot fit in a text message.

    1. Are you the person that makes that cheesy “O look our son is calling from the Army” commercial on TV when the entire family picks up the phone to chat all doing their stereotypical things?
      If so please stop, that commercial is too long, annoying, and cheesy.

    2. “My iPhone, with its supposedly intuitive interface, doesn’t have an add third party or join conversation button.”

      Yea…that + button with the label “add call” that shows up when you’re in a call is what you’re looking for.  

  11. Where does VOIP service come in? Is that landline or not land line? I pay $6.50 per month for mine which gives me free long distance calling throughout the U.S. and Canada and an hours worth of calling non-landlines around the world per month. After that, international calls are compatible with other discount services. Calls to Western Europe are 2 cents per minute and 5 cents per Israel. 

    Cell phone calls cost about 8 to 10 cents more per minute than land line calls. This is because if you call a cell phone, the caller charged for it instead of it counting against the cell phone owner’s minutes. I guess it made sense in the days when you had 60 minutes per month, but in this day and age of 1000 minutes per month (and even unlimited minutes), it doesn’t make much sense.

      1. The ISPs(at least in the US) have been doing a bit of muddying on that matter of late…

        You’ll see phone service(usually as part of what is obnoxiously referred to as a ‘triple play’ bundle) that is architecturally VOIP all the way from their CPE device to the rest of the world; but which is usually tied to the copper wiring inside the house and isn’t generally sold with the notion that the ‘consumer’ will try anything fancy (SIP softphones, asterix, etc.)

        These offerings aren’t traditional POTS any more than freestanding VOIP is; but (especially among cable customers) they are making inroads against pure copper, and are usually sold as being a drop-in replacement.

  12. So 4 in 10 under 30 year olds have a landline. I wonder how many do because they still live with parents that have one or live in a dorm room that has one? 

  13. I wondered for a moment why the CDC would be studying telephones, but then I remembered – germ-laden handsets.

  14. I have a landline, my monthly cost is $11. I got a bundle deal from my cable company, and I don’t have any of the extras, like call forwarding, on it. To me, it’s worth $11/mo for the enhanced 911 service. And, unlimited local calls is very useful to me. I also have a handset in most rooms, so, if something happens, I am always fairly close to one. (I keep my cell in my briefcase, which is often three rooms away.)

  15. Conveniently, a lot of newer cordless phone packages(the classic ‘the base station is a phone machine and charges 1 handset, 3-4 other handsets can be scattered around within 150 feet or so) setup can actually be made to work with cellphones:

    The base station has a bluetooth radio and emulates a bluetooth headset device. You pair the cellphone with it, and all the handsets that talk to the base station can use the cellphone exactly as if everything were plugged into a landline: multiple speakers/listners, if that’s your thing, picking up your phone from anywhere in the house even if it is sitting and charging in the other room, dialing from any handset in the house, and so forth.

    Now, I’m sure that I’m just advocating a technological solution because of my sterile, withered, anti-social soul; but it is an option.

    (No specific endorsement of the following model is implied; but it’s a fairly representative example of the genre: )

  16. I can’t wait until charter and att goes down! No i don’t want to pay 30 dollars a month for a land line so I can get a bonus discount on my tv and internet. But gosh I guess I have to so I don’t have to pay double.

    Google Fiber, please make you way out of Kansas City and to the rest of the US!!!

  17. Many years ago I worked for a major cell phone company’s R&D department. Back then, minutes were paid in pure gold nuggets. We used to talk about a mythical time in the future when, we projected, everyone would have cell phones. In this future time, we would all have “universal” phone numbers that you didn’t have to change every time you moved. And landline would be dead. Welcome to the future!!!

  18. Good Lord, this is a national crisis! Time to add another monthly service fee to fund an agency to help get all these people back on landlines.

  19. Amazing how fast this has changed!

    My family first got a cell phone following a disastrous snowstorm in 1997, when it took two weeks to get the landline repaired. (We were one of the lucky ones!) We borrowed a neighbor’s cell to call our own voicemail to make sure we didn’t miss anything. That was fifteen years ago.

    I went wireless-only this spring.

    My parents are thinking of getting rid of their landline. I think my mom’s hesitant partly because they’ve had the same phone number for 20+ years. Maybe they should try to transfer the number to one of their cells…?

    1.  I have kept my phone number since ’99 and have no plans to give it up. When we abandoned our landline my partner ported the home number and still has it. It is no problem to port the number at all.

  20. I’m already plotting my next step, a wireless data only device. I’ll port my # to google voice and just pay for data. I also don’t have cable. The Internet, it does everything.

  21. And pollsters rarely call them (mostly because they depend on sources that don’t include them), which explains how so many of them screwed up so bad this past year.

  22. I think the line would spike even more if it weren’t for sheer inertia. I have always had a landline… up until Hurricane Ike. When we moved after the storm and were changing all of our utilities over we realized that there was no reason to keep a landline. 

    YMMV. I know there are some use cases which make landlines smart options, but I bet far more people pay the landline bill because they have always paid it. 

  23. We’d ditch our landline in a heartbeat if cell service here wasn’t so abysmal. Even here in my corner of Indiana, our cell service in our home is of the “go out in the yard to get any bars” variety. Thanks Verizon!

    I still prefer the sound quality of our landline to either cell or voip. There’s just no comparison.

    1. Yeah, I couldn’t get any bars at my job in Rockville, MD.  I complained to Verizon and they said Rockville was a “marginal area” and they had no plans to improve the signal there.  I dropped VZ like a sack full o’ VD.

  24. I pay less than $20 a month for landline service.  And i keep it because both of my kids are under the age of 7, i want them to be able to call 911 and not have to worry about trying to remember the address in the event of an emergency.  I will never go completely wireless until they are older.

  25. In a SHTF-type catastrophic event when reality negates all phone, media and utility regardless, HAM radio will prove itself center-stage hero and this is being overlooked/underrated ~

  26. I got news for you folks, you don’t need a cell phone either.  You can get rid of it too.  Be ahead of the curve.  I’ve been internet only for as long back as I can remember.   Don’t watch TV, or use faxes, or transmit in morse code either.  Imagine that.    I will even go further and say, you don’t even need internet, for the most part its a ‘sophisticated tv’ and a total waste of time.   

    You can be 100% communication free, and its nice and quiet.  Gone are anybody… anybody at all.. calling out of the blue at any time of the day convenient for them… trying to make their stupid problems, your problems.  Gone are the wasting of countless hours playing video games, dialing up with modems, posting comments to Youtube videos that nobody reads, running out of the shower to catch a call on your cell phone that is a wrong number.

    Once you go completely free, you realize, you didn’t need all that… crap.. it was all an illusion.  It was no social connection at all, nor was it a safety net at all.  In all my life time, I have never called 911… and if I had an emergency, that would be the last thing I’d do.  Instead, I’d do what I always do… and what you should do too… handle it.     Have a flat tire on the side of the road?  Don’t be a baby and call mommy or the calvary.  Handle it.  Change it.   Brake line blow out on you, or battery dead at work?  Handle it.   
    Now I sneer at people who, whenever they need information or have a teeny tiny emergency, immediately start dialing someone. I mean, seriously. Stop. Being. Helpless. Handle it. Its not that hard. Learn how. Once you know you can handle anything, anything at all, you’re not afraid of anything anymore. Cut the cord and cut the wifi signal and cut the cell tower link.

    1. House engulfed in flames?  Sack up and put it out yourself!  Fatal multi-car pileup?  Learn advanced emergency medicine and take care of all the survivors yourself, pantywaist!

      No wonder you didn’t make any “social connection.”

  27. Misleading article – should be “Long slow death of landline in residential”.  I doubt most businesses would give up their landline and the 5 9’s reliability (99.999% uptime).  

    1. Not all of their landlines; but it isn’t terribly uncommon to see, in businesses large enough for the savings to outweigh the setup costs, that almost all the handsets on the desks are just sitting behind the PBX and that the PBX is handling most of its traffic through VOIP with just a few ‘backup’ copper lines left.

      It will be interesting to see if this eventually causes the telephone guys to start pricing the remaining lines like high-reliability backups, since they are no longer being subsidized by nearly as many lines paying the same price to handle low priority chatter.

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