Friday, May 16, 2008

Lonliness of the Long Distance Landline

The latest telephone usage statistics confirm what we've already suspected. People are running away from landlines like they're allergic to copper. If Alexander Graham Bell came back to life in his lab today and spilled battery acid in his lap, he'd be screaming for Watson in his prototype transmitter to no avail. Nobody would be listening at the other end of that wire. Now if he had the presence of mind to whip out his cell phone and select the picture of Mr. Watson as one of his favorites, that call would likely go through. Watson, like just about everybody else, has gone wireless.

It's no surprise that most everyone carries a cell phone. They probably have two or three more old ones, sitting in a drawer, that should be recycled. People just love staying connected. They're on those phones even when they shouldn't be. Sit at any stop light and watch the cars turning left in front of you. About every third one has a driver on the phone. Sadly, one too many of those has a cigarette in the other hand is driving with their elbows. Ma Bell would never have sat still for that.

Ma didn't have to. In the days when houses were built with special nooks for the telephone set, you needed wires to make anything happen. Those wires might happen to include a run of barbed wire cattle fence. No matter. It was the requirement for electrical conductors that led to the universal copper pair that runs to every home and business. But the way things are going, you might as well dig up that copper and use it to make pennies. People are abandoning their landlines. Today 30% wouldn't pick up a home phone even if it rang.

My how things have changed. Growing up in our house I remember everyone but my grandmother being thrilled when we finally got off the neighborhood party line and got our own private phone line. I used to watch her comically sitting at the desk with her hand cupped over the transmitter of our one heavy flat-black non-dial telephone set. Neighborhood conversations were at least as amusing as the early TV shows. By the time I became a homeowner, there were outlets for telephones in just about every room including the basement. Your phone was your connection to everyone near and far. You wanted your number printed in the telephone directory so that people could find you.

At my house, we're the kind of people who just wouldn't feel right if there wasn't a telephone hanging on the wall or sitting on the desk. Who isn't? Younger people. Those who have no memory of "number, please" operators or a day when the term "cell phone" sounded like something you'd find in a prison. That's everybody under 30. A third of those have only a cell phone. If mom wants to call, she better have the number written down. It's not published.

There's another group that's somewhere in the middle. They either have regular landline telephone service but don't use it, or they've moved on to the latest technology. Cable companies want to be in the phone business. They offer bundles of TV, phone service and broadband Internet called "triple play". The telephone service actually uses the broadband rather than standard phone wires. This is VoIP or Voice over Internet Protocol. It's big advantage is that you can get more features for less money, especially in a bundled service. It does have the annoying problem of going dead when the power goes out or when the Cable broadband dumps. Then you use your cell phone.

But if you are going to use your cell phone some of the time at home and all of the time while mobile, why bother with a landline or VoIP phone service at all? That's what the younger generations think. Many kids today get their first cell phone when they are in high school, take it to college, and by the time they're out in the world everybody they want to talk to knows their cell number. Why not just keep the cell on at home instead of having a completely different number or a "find me follow me" setup? You don't need finding or following if you only have one number.

Along with landlines, the concept of competitive long distance phone service is fading from the scene. This was one of the first products of phone system deregulation. You could save a lot of money by switching to an alternative provider, and probably still can if you are a heavy landline user. This service was so aggressively marketed that it became a TV punchline for someone to pick up a ringing phone during dinner and say: "No, I don't want to switch my long distance phone service."

Now, what's long distance? Most cellular service plans work the same whether you are calling across town or across the country. You buy bundles of anytime minutes and just make sure you don't go over your monthly limit. If that's a chronic problem, you can now get plans with unlimited anytime minutes.

Long distance still comes into play for international calling. If you have relatives or business associates overseas, you're sensitive to international rates. International minutes are almost always an additional charge. You can keep your costs down by using low rate International calling cards and whatever phone you wish. This is also probably the best justification for VoIP going forward. Simply coordinate with your contacts overseas to use the same VoIP service, and your "on network" calls are free. The Internet becomes the phone line.

Verizon has a interesting approach whereby fiber optic cable replaces your TV coaxial cable, your telephone line, and your DSL or Cable broadband connection. Signals beamed through glass fibers are far faster and more flexible than other technologies. So much so that TV, broadband Internet and telephone service all have their own wavelengths and don't interfere with each other. In this case, the telephone company is taking over the television business and perhaps preserving the legacy of home phone service for future generations.

Follow Telexplainer on Twitter