Cutting the cord

More Americans eliminating landline phones from their lives

January 06, 2009|By Eric Benderoff | Eric Benderoff,Chicago Tribune

Even when his cell phone offered no bars during a storm last week and he had no other way to get a dial tone, Carlton Smith did not second-guess his 21st-century decision to cancel traditional landline phone service in his house.

Smith was one of the many victims of a service outage that affected AT&T Wireless customers across the Midwest Dec. 28. The 35-year-old father of two called the experience frustrating, and he was disappointed in how AT&T handled the outage. But he wasn't worried.

"We figured it was a cell problem, and it would clear up," he said.

It did. And while a day without cell phone service may feel like a day without oxygen for many, all the indications are that a sporadic outage like the one Smith experienced will not slow a trend that is well under way: More people, particularly younger adults, are cutting home phone service to go wireless only.

In fact, as the recession deepens and money-saving strategies become the talk of the nation, more people are willing to cut home phone service, surveys indicate.

Nearly a third of the people who responded to a Sprint survey last month said they were willing to cut their landline phone and rely only on a wireless phone to save money. Already, 17.5 percent of U.S. households - roughly one out of every six - don't have a landline, according to new data from the National Health Interview Survey, a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Just three years ago, the number of wireless-only households was about 7 percent.

"We didn't really rethink our strategy of not having a home phone," said Smith, who lives in suburban Detroit, the epicenter of the outage. "With the big wind storm we were having, I figured that was why. Our landline phone went out in the past when there was a big storm, too."

Not everyone will cut the cord, however. Reasons include call clarity, concerns about reaching emergency services and, for some people, needing a landline phone to buzz people into an apartment building.

"I've come close to going wireless only," said Jim Porrett, a 35-year-old business analyst from suburban Chicago, who had intermittent service on his iPhone a week ago Sunday. "But I'm still keeping it just for this reason."

Porrett uses his iPhone for most calls, including long-distance, because he has basic home phone service. But he considers his home phone a backup that he uses only occasionally.

People who go wireless tend to be younger, single and renters. The December National Health Interview Survey found that 35.7 percent of adults ages 25 to 29 lived in households with only wireless phones. Further, 63.1 percent of adults living with unrelated roommates lived in wireless-only households. Only 9.2 percent of adults between 45 to 64 lived in wireless-only households, and just 2.8 percent of adults over 65 did so.

Federal rules mandate that 95 percent of the phones from wireless carriers are "E911-capable" - or "location-capable" - so callers can be found if they dial emergency services. These rules are being implemented and will get more stringent by 2012. The majority of new mobile phones are location-capable.

Chicagoan Steven Winkler, 43, has a practical reason for eliminating his landline phone: money. Five years ago, when he was working two jobs, "I was never home. It didn't make sense to be paying two bills."

Now he has one job but he did not go back to the landline. He admits there are times that "for whatever reason, I can't make a cell phone call, but you get used to it."

He has Skype to make Internet phone calls, "but the call quality is not good," he said. "It is just a backup."

He uses Comcast for Internet service and Sprint for his mobile phone.

"What are the chances that my cell phone and my Internet will go out at the same time?" Then he laughed, hoping he hadn't just jinxed himself.

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