Wireless vs. landline becomes a cultural question

Dorothy Hawkinson of Sacramento won’t give up her classic rotary phone that she bought from a Pacific Bell store more than 25 years ago. She’s also part of another rare group these days: people without a cell phone. Hawkinson said she dislikes the sound quality of cell phones and hard-to-read numbers.

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, concerns about safety, sound quality, the cost of cell phones, or simply – tradition.

“It’s a fixture in the house, kind of like the refrigerator,” said technology analyst Larry Magid. “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 figure’s up from 110 million in 2000, and 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 another 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, senior scientist at the National Center for Health Statistics.

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, be 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.

Dorothy Hawkinson, 57, of Sacramento, doesn’t have a cell phone and likes it that way. The retired nonprofit fundraiser and fiddle player finds the sound quality of cell phones to be problematic and hates that she needs her reading glasses to see the numbers.

Hawkinson has three phones in her house, a cordless, an office phone and a classic ivory rotary phone with a gold cradle she bought for about $200 from a Pacific Bell store more than 25 years ago.

And when the phone rings, she picks it up, even though she doesn’t have caller ID.

“That’s the way it’s been my whole life so I don’t think about it,” she said.

Laura Cerda, 41, of Sacramento, canceled her landline but reordered it two months later. Cerda’s mom comes over one night a week to watch her daughter but never bothers to turn on her cell phone. So the only way Cerda could reach her was to call the house phone.

Cerda’s daughter doesn’t bother answering her cell phone, either.

“Much to my dismay, we have to text, and I can’t really yell effectively through a text,” said the commercial real estate manager.

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 already 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, 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, the 35-year-old 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 was telemarketers.”

There is something lost when people turn wireless, said Kevin Wehr, associate professor of sociology at Sac State. 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.”

Magid, the technology analyst, also feels nostalgia for his landline, and swears he’ll never get rid of it. He harkens back to the days before cell phones, when he never knew who was going to answer the house phone.

“It’s the communal phone; when you called home, my dad might answer, my mom might answer, my sister might answer,” he said. “I was calling the family, not the individual.”

Magid also likes the comfort of knowing he’ll always be able to call 911, and that the last dropped call he had on his landline was in 1989, during the Loma Prieta earthquake.

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