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As households switch to wireless-only phones, is it time to put the landline out to pasture?

Millions of cost-cutting Americans are asking: Ditch the landline phone and go completely wireless, or keep paying two bills for dependability and peace of mind? Many have already clipped the cord.

Wireless-only households have surpassed those solely dependent on landlines, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tracks the information.

Still, some won't give up on their landline with its comforting dial tone, whether out of laziness, safety concerns, sound quality, cell phone costs or, simply, tradition.

"It's a fixture in the house, kind of like the refrigerator," technology analyst Larry Magid said. "It's just there, it's reliable, it's wired and glued in place because of the cord, and there's no meter on it."

There were 270 million cell phones in use in December 2008, the most recent figure available from the trade group CTIA-The Wireless Association. That's up from 110 million in 2000. It means 87 percent of Americans have a phone they take everywhere, the group found.

More than 20 percent of households were wireless-only in December, and an additional 15 percent said they took most calls on cell phones instead of landlines, according to the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics. Just 17 percent of households had a landline without a cell phone.

"I have both a landline and a cell phone, and every time I pay that landline bill I wonder why," said Stephen Blumberg, an NCHS senior scientist.

Blumberg fell into tracking phone use in 2003, when the CDC realized that people giving up landlines could cause potential bias in the center's health surveys, which are taken over the phone. The studies have found that home ownership, not age, is the biggest predictor of a wireless home. Renters are four times less likely to have a landline, Blumberg said.

There were also health differences between those with and without landlines. Wireless-only adults are more likely to smoke, binge drink, go without health insurance and not wear a seat belt, according to Blumberg.

The CDC doesn't know why this is, but collects the information to mitigate distortion in surveys.

"It may be as simple as persons who are wireless-only are more likely to be out with friends, socializing outside the home," Blumberg said.

Wireless and telecom industry analyst Jeff Kagan doesn't see the landline phone dying completely, just a transformation of the industry.

Everything is becoming connected, he said, so that one day a person will be able to talk on a cell phone that will transfer seamlessly to a home phone when the user walks through the door, and even connect to the Internet and TV. There are Internet-based phone calls with Skype and Vonage.

"We're moving in that direction in the next 10 to 20 years," Kagan said.

Businesses are letting go of landlines at a much slower pace than private phone customers, ensuring the job security of Jose Olagues, 35, a telecom analyst for California State University, Sacramento.

Landlines are generally cheaper than cell phones, Olagues said. And businesses need the dependability of phones that don't cut out or run out of battery life.

Still, Olagues ditched his landline at home when AT&T started offering DSL broadband without a phone number last year.

"I don't think we had a phone plugged in for a year anyway," Olagues said. "All we got (were calls from) telemarketers."

There is something lost when people turn wireless, said Kevin Wehr, associate professor of sociology at Sacramento. Area codes no longer matter, people lose the safety of an electricity-free phone, and there is longing for the simpler times of the past — the ring tone on Wehr's iPhone is the old-style telephone ring.

"It punches some nostalgia buttons," he said. "It sounds interesting and old school."

Dan Weiser, 51, Web editor for the U.S. House of Representatives and former television news director, recently canceled his landline. The unintended consequence is that he can no longer call his cell phone to figure out where he misplaced it.

As households switch to wireless-only phones, is it time to put the landline out to pasture? 08/08/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 8, 2009 4:31am]
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