The Right Click

The future of landlines: is the time of traditional phones over?

There’s no question about it: the use of phones has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. Instead of only reaching us when we’re at home, people can now call, text and email us just about anywhere.

But that doesn’t mean the landline’s time has come and gone. While some older styles of communication, like cursive writing, seem to be nearing the end of their time, there are still reasons for people to hold onto their landlines. They just might not be good enough reasons for most of us.

The question of how valid landlines are came into the spotlight recently when many residents in the northeastern U.S. found themselves without a telephone line after Hurricane Sandy rolled through in 2012. Residents like Ken MacPherson of Fire Island, New Jersey, lost the use of their home phones because the infrastructure around the telephone network had been knocked out. The copper wire connection was damaged, and MacPherson found himself without a phone – until the phone company put a wireless phone system in place, one that didn’t rely on the old copper wire system.

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The move has prompted companies like Verizon to abandon landlines in Fire Island and replace it with an entirely wireless phone network. According to Longisland.com, the plan Verizon has proposed to the FCC involves abandoning the copper wire connections and installing wireless transmitters that connect home phones to the wireless network. As Verizon is the only landline service provider to the area, it would mean that every home would be on the wireless network.

The financial benefit to Verizon is obvious. In order to repair the damaged copper system, the company would need to dig up the main roads of Fire Island – probably more than once – and chances are that after they replaces everything, another major storm could destroy it again. Temporarily, Verizon has been given permission to implement its all-wireless landline plan, despite concerns from the New York Public Service Commission that residents will now have to use 10-digit dialing for all calls, and phone line-based services such as certain medical alert services and some credit card machines used by small businesses won’t be supported.

For many people, however, the convenience and cost savings of leaving behind the landline is just too tempting to pass up. Beyond the wireless home phone system Verizon is supporting, many people are getting rid of their home phones altogether in favour of staying permanently mobile.

Compared to other countries, Canadians are still pretty attached to their landlines. According to an Angus Reid poll referenced by The Chronicle Herald, 83 per cent of Canadians still used a home phone in 2012. That’s relatively high when compared to the U.S. (64 per cent), but lower than places like Australia, where it was reported this week that 86 per cent of Australians still have a home phone. But the Canadian numbers don’t take into account the number of people who have switched to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service, a type of phone service that relies on your Internet connection. Compared to traditional phone service, VoIP is cheaper, and often quicker to set up than a copper wire system line.

The biggest concern that VoIP and mobile-only users have are often tied to calling 911. Early on, mobile phones couldn’t transmit your location when you called emergency services, which you could do when using a landline. Now, 911 services can locate you using your GPS signal or triangulating your location with nearby cell towers, so the dispatcher can send out emergency services to your area while you tell them your exact location. Some VoIP services, like those provided by cable companies, can still transmit your location to 911 like traditional landlines do, while others that rely on the Internet connection can’t. For more information on what 911 access you have with your phone, read the CRTC guidelines here.

There are also other factors that may be holding many people back from ‘cutting the cord.’ For some, the call quality on mobile phones just isn’t as good as on a landline. The wireless systems are also separately vulnerable to natural disasters. As Fox News cites, when the Northeastern U.S. was hit by a blackout about ten years ago, it knocked out wireless communications while many landlines remained intact. Now, wireless and mobile technology has come a long way in ten years, but it’s still something worth considering if you’re relying on it as your only form of communication.

So what’s the future of landlines as we know them? While they’ve certainly dropped in popularity, the technology of wireless systems isn’t quite there to completely replace every landline across Canada. Currently, a two-tech system is serving Canadians well, and will likely do so for quite a few years to come.

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