Remember pay phones? Those telltale rectangular booths situated at every other street corner for your calling convenience? Well, it looks like Superman will have to find a new place to change, because they're quickly becoming a thing of the past (except in places like airports). If current trends continue, landline phones may soon join pay phones in the technology graveyard.
When was the last time you memorized someone's home number? It's probably been a while, as more people are beginning to make the majority of their calls on cell phones. In the U.S. and Europe, roughly 75 percent of the respective populations are wireless subscribers [source: Mobile Internet, Wireless Industry News]. Some European countries even expect to exceed 100 percent wireless penetration soon, due to people purchasing multiple devices [source: Mobile Pipeline].
As of late 2007, 16 percent of U.S. households had no landline whatsoever, compared to just 5 percent in 2004 [source: Associated Press]. If that rapid trend of ditching landlines continues, half of the U.S. could be without one in about 10 years.
Among the people who have landlines in the U.S., 13 percent nevertheless rely on their cell phones for the majority of their calls. Across the country, people are hanging up their home phones:
Even businesses are ditching their wires for more economical options, like WiFi and VoIP (voice over Internet protocol). Ford's Detroit headquarters, for example, recently purchased 8,000 wireless phones for the staff and ripped up its landlines. Eighty-five percent of the company's business is now conducted wirelessly [source: Foster]. It's not just major players like Ford who are embracing the new technologies, either. In New Jersey, sanitation distributor Laymen Global also has abandoned its landlines, except for a few it's keeping for emergencies.
People who have made the switch cite several benefits. Wireless communication saves money on local and long-distance phone charges, frees people up from their desks and prevents having to lay new cables. Laymen Global, the New Jersey company, saved $4,600 on its phone bill by forgoing landlines [source: Runner].
Ditching Your Landline Phone Service: Advantages and Disadvantages
While VoIP, cell phones and other wireless communication methods can save money, landline stalwarts don't believe a switch is warranted. They argue that the cost of replacement technology can easily eclipse the savings recouped by not installing cable. In addition, local- and long-distance phone charges may be cheaper, but that's not always the case. Making VoIP calls from overseas, for instance, can result in hefty charges.
Security is another factor for people to consider before letting go of their landlines. It's much easier for hackers to gain access to conversations on a cell phone or through VoIP than it is on a traditional phone line. Some people on the front lines of communications technology think that security concerns could prevent many companies from turning entirely away from landlines [source: Runner].
Interference may also pose a problem, depending on the quality of the landline's replacement. While the quality of WiFi and VoIP has improved significantly since the two technologies first came out, they're not 100 percent reliable. Some people claim crystal clear reception and say they can't differentiate between wireless and landline calls, but unless you carry around a portable cell tower, you probably still encounter dead zones every now and then.
A final issue that may prevent the landline's demise is simply nostalgia. Employers who do away with traditional phones often regret it when they see their workers straying farther and farther from their desks. The convenience of wireless communication can just as easily be a distraction, with salespeople chatting on the phone instead of focusing on their next sale. If landlines disappear, the days of sitting at your desk to complete the day's work may disappear, too.
If you can push those issues aside, the attractions of ditching landlines are hard to ignore: no more costly telephone switching stations, no more wires and fiber-optic cables stretching for miles and no more unsightly telephone poles (although you'd still have cell phone towers).
If you still find yourself having separation anxiety over the possible disappearance of landline telephones, though, you're not alone. Many people are fearful of what their disappearance might mean.
A Future Without the Landline?
Even though landlines aren't off the radar yet, some people are already starting to feel the impact of their decline. As you might expect, major telephone providers are among those affected by abandoned landlines, but some other unexpected groups, like pollsters and politicians, are feeling the effects as well.
Don't feel too sorry for the telephone companies though. While major players like AT&T and Verizon get from one-third to one-half of their revenue from land-based subscribers, they won't necessarily lose those subscribers; they'll just convert them to wireless subscribers instead. So perhaps the companies are right not to be concerned about the drop-off in landlines, but the landscape is undoubtedly changing.
For instance, phone companies are starting to face competition from cable companies, like Time Warner and Comcast, who have lured customers away with their Internet-based communication offerings. Even as their landline subscribers decline, the phone companies still have to fork out billions of dollars a year to maintain the networks [source: Cauley].
As the phone companies puzzle over their future business model, pollsters are starting to wonder about their own ability to continue in a world without landlines. Polling organizations rely mainly on calls to landline numbers. Federal law prevents calls to cell phones by the computerized systems most often used by pollsters, so public opinion surveys could start to see skewed results. This is especially true since the remaining landline users tend to come from a particular demographic. They're more likely to be affluent, homeowners, over age 30 and white [source: Associated Press].
Politicians, too, have had to alter their game since many of their targeted constituents -- young voters -- are likely to only have a cell. With cell phones, whether you're dialing or receiving the call you have to pay for it, so this method of communication is off limits to campaigns. Political candidates have had to get creative in how they reach voters: pop-up ads, blogs written by the candidate and Internet commercials are some of the newer forms of outreach.
Although cell phones and VoIP are increasing in popularity, landlines will probably stick around until coverage and security improve. At least one good reason to use a landline is that emergency service providers often still have difficulty locating where cell phone calls originate. So while landlines linger on for now, don't rule out having to explain what a telephone pole was to your great-grandkids.