The wires snake through alleys, tie every block together. They stretch for miles across empty prairie and thread through every room of the tallest building in the biggest city. The telephone network is one of the most remarkable technical achievements of the 20th century.
And people are so done with it.
Well, some people. You might like your old reliable phone, hanging on the wall or sitting on a table, its thin tail tapping into the wall to transfer your torrents of syllables. But you are a diminishing demographic.
In 2004, according to Forbes, around 90 percent of us had a landline and only 5 percent of households were cellphone-only. Ten years later, less than 60 percent of American homes have a landline and more than 40 percent rely on the clever thin pocket computers we still call “phones.”
The National Health Interview Survey released detailed stats in 2014 on who’s cutting the cord, and as you might suspect, it’s people who never had a cord in the first place. People under 30? Seventy percent lack a landline.
The group least likely to be wireless-only: people 65 and over. Eighty-four percent still have a landline. That number is going down, however. It was 92 percent in 2011.
More and more, people are looking at the traditional phone tied to a wall jack as the equivalent of an aerial on the roof pulling in three TV networks. This brings challenges for survey-takers, who find their data skewing gray because they haven’t figured out a way to annoy cellphone users, but you suspect they’ll figure that out.
Here’s a caveat: The shift away from the Traditional Phone might be exaggerated. It has to do with how a landline is defined.
You think: a line, right? On poles that are stuck in the land. The phone company wire, in other words. But what if the line is your TV cable? If someone drops POTS — that’s Plain Old Telephone Service — in favor of a telephone-like service provided through a line from their cable company, does that count as one fewer landline? The answer is yes.
But even if you factor in the semantic difference, the stats are clear. We’re moving away from the old model. Why?
Don’t call us, we’ll …
Some folks blame telemarketers. If you’re one of these people, it seems the only calls you get on the landline are people who want your money.
Anyone who’s ever had a tot wake from a nap because you forgot to mute the phone and discover that the caller is Robotina from Card Services — well, you wish that anyone who ran telemarketing scams was required by law to wear a subdermal electrode and you could send them a powerful shock by dialing #666.
You might think you’ll hang onto your landline and wait for a law to eliminate telemarketing, but Minnesota statutes already prohibit calls unless you’ve agreed to get them and the message is immediately preceded by a live operator who obtains the subscriber’s consent before the message is delivered. When was the last time that happened? Quarter-past never.
The do-not-call lists seem rather … porous, and while you can block numbers on some phones, it requires entering the labyrinthine menu of your device, which feels like you’re programming a strange alarm clock in a hotel. Cellphones get spam calls, but it’s not so bad — at least, not yet. Internet phones — also known as VOIP, or Voice Over Internet Protocol — brag about better blacklists.
Landlines also are losing favor because modern phones are, in many people’s eyes, ugly.
Telephone design peaked with the rotary phone, or perhaps the Princess. Cordless phones are convenient but lack style; they look like LED watches the nerds wore in 1975. There are exceptions; Panasonic makes some attractive phones that seem to have arrived from the next century, but you can tell the company is hedging its bets: With Bluetooth adaptors, the receivers can work with your cellphones.
There still are some advantages to POTS: Landlines are cheaper; you can get basic service for under $20. But you can’t update Facebook on a wallphone, which makes the cheap price irrelevant for some.
Landlines also are more reliable in a natural disaster. People can swamp the cell system trying to tell everyone they’re OK, and POTS phones don’t have batteries that die when they can’t be recharged because the power goes out. Storms, however, can knock down phone lines along with the electrical lines, so if the neighborhood’s been flattened, there’s a good chance your phone will sing the dee-dee-dee lament when you pick it up.
Practicality vs. tradition
Attitudes are changing, too. Some of the cord cutters are the people who once claimed they wouldn’t give up their wired phones until they were pried from their cold, stiff fingers. But now they’re doing so because the younger generations have defined personal telecommunication styles. Example: Steve May, engineer, 61. He’s cutting the cord for a VOIP device. Why?
“It’s less of a cultural change away from wired phones than the fact that nobody calls me on my home line anymore,” he said. “Not that I don’t like the technology, but now I’m paying for a line that’s pretty expensive for not much value. Might be one call in 70 that it’s not solicitors and robocall.”
And there are other things making the old corded friend on the wall obsolete.
“The thing is, it’s not just that people call on the cell and the landline,” May continued, “it’s that people don’t call me.” He laughed. “And not because I don’t have friends. It’s just routinely moved to texting. Most people under 50 are texting in preference to calling someone on the phone.”
Does his daughter have a landline? Might as well ask if she has a Morse Lamp and a foot-pedal-operated ambergris strainer. But let’s ask her. Maddie May is a student at St. Olaf. So, do you have one of those old weird phone-things?
“Yeah, we do,” she confessed. “But it’s not plugged in. We don’t even know the number.”
Younger folks get all excited about new phones these days — not so different from how their parents reacted to the technological changes in communication during their youth, The elder May still waxes wistfully about his first stand-alone answering machine.
“You could leave your house and never miss a call,” Steve May said. “You’d really arrived.”
It was a magic moment. You could always be reached, but you weren’t a slave to the call. Except it didn’t work out that way. We still jump when the cellphone buzzes, like marionettes reacting to the tug of an invisible string.
The landline trained generations to run for the phone when it rang. Now the calls pester us wherever we go. We traded a line for a leash.