Death of the Landline

By Beacon Staff

As the beginning of a recent Slate business and money commentary states, “It’s not exactly insightful to point out that young people don’t feel the need to have old-fashioned telephones, the kind that are tethered to a house via a wire and provided by a descendant of the original AT&T.” When reporter Daniel Gross conducted an informal survey of the under-30 set in his office, asking if they had landline phones, he says he was greeted with “doleful, patronizing, silly-old man smiles.”

He’d get more of the same from my friends and many of my colleagues at the Beacon. Of those groups, I can think of only two people who have landlines: one, because of her at-home business; the other, because of a triple-offer with the cable company (he says he’s used it maybe once in the last three months).

What is insightful about Gross’ article, though, is that the move away from housebound phones can’t just be blamed on cell phones and instant messaging. Other economic factors are playing their part, too.

The telephone at home has long been a utility, not a discretionary item. But as the economy has worsened, “consumers seem to be saying that home-based telephones are expendable luxuries, like Starbucks lattes or Coach handbags,” Gross writes. Confronted with rising costs, consumers are being more choosy about which bills they’re willing to pay, “and if it comes down to one or the other, the mobile or the home-based land line, it’s clear which is a necessity and which is an option. One lets you make telephone calls only from your house. The other lets you make telephone calls from anywhere, send e-mails, surf the Internet, play music, and take photographs.”

And as foreclosures boom, the number of vacant homes and displaced residents grows, further decreasing the need for landlines. The overall result: the decline in the number of landlines has accelerated sharply this year – bad news for the likes of AT&T and Verizon since they still depend on their landline business for much of their total revenue.

My parents were reluctant to jump on the cell phone bandwagon, and I endured my high school years and the first semester of college in the “dark ages.” In that semester, I memorized my phone card codes just to call friends who were across campus. Most of them hadn’t even bothered to hook in a phone to their free landline in the dorm, and their cell phones were “long-distance” since they originated from different towns.

I now operate solely by cell when I’m not at work, and even then often forgo a landline. I did a recent interview with two women who were in Turkey via Skype, an online phone service.

But while you’d probably expect my generation of 20-somethings to abandon the landlines (and we largely have), I’d say it’s the economic changes that have older generations – even my once cell phone-phobic parents – thinking about dropping their landlines. My mom recently wondered aloud why she pays to maintain a phone that only telemarketers call. Good question.