Tuesday, August 5, 2003

Millions hanging up on landline phones

Young professionals lead in going solo with cells

By Rebecca Carroll
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - The curly-corded phone by Brandon Fogel's bed was starting to seem like a relic.

A graduate student living in Chicago, Fogel used his cell phone for most calls. And when he replaced his dial-up Internet connection with a cable line, he realized his regular phone wasn't central to his life.

So Fogel joined as many as 7.5 million Americans who have "cut the cord" and gone solo with their cells.

Students, recent graduates and young professionals are leading the way.

(Story continues below graphic)
cell phones graphic "It will be interesting to see if these young people who have abandoned landline phones will turn back to them as they grow older or if wireless will be able to serve all their needs," said Travis Larson, a spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, a Washington-based industry group.

In number, cell phones are creeping up on landline phones. They already account for about 43 percent of all U.S. phones, according to the International Telecommunication Union, up from 37 percent in 2000.

Meanwhile, the number of U.S. landline phones has dropped by more than 5 million, or nearly 3 percent, since 2000, the Federal Communications Commission reported in June.

The United States hasn't been the quickest to adapt. Already, more than half the phones in the world are cellular.

Cell phones overtook landlines earliest in some developing countries that hadn't laid ground lines by the time cellular technology arrived. In Cambodia, for instance, nearly 90 percent of phones are cellular.

It's not possible to say precisely how many Tristate residents have dumped their land lines.

At the end of June, Cincinnati Bell Telephone had about 1 million access lines in service, a loss of 2 percent, or 21,000 access lines, from the same quarter a year ago, new CEO Jack Cassidy told investors last week.

About half the line loss was attributed to disconnection of both residential second access lines and carrier lines, he said.

But when landlines are combined with its 87,000 Zoomtown digital subscriber lines, Cassidy said, Cincinnati Bell's total lines to homes increased by 1,100 this year.

Since Cincinnati Bell entered the wireless market about four years ago, its total number of subscribers has risen to 464,000 in the Cincinnati-Dayton area.

The company said last week the total for wireless subscribers was down about 1 percent from a year ago.

Cell phones started outnumbering traditional phones in European countries in the late 1990s, partly because phone pricing systems favored wireless, analysts say. Typically, Europeans don't have unlimited local calls on their home phones - one big advantage of landline service in America.

Many people overseas also have to wait months and pay hefty deposits for regular service to be installed, making the out-of-the-box utility of cell phones even more appealing.

Early U.S. models were pitched as car phones, which had a more limited appeal. But the nation is catching up.

The United States now has almost one cell phone for every two Americans. It took ground lines nearly 100 years to reach that level of penetration, according to Sheldon Hochheiser, AT&T's corporate historian.

About half the households recently surveyed by PriMetrica Inc., a San Diego research group, said they would give up their landlines if the wireless price was right.

While price is a factor for many, the switch to wireless is often a matter of convenience. Fogel in Chicago has moved four times in the last four years. The hassle of changing his phone number and paying installation fees made his decision a little easier.

Fogel figures he saves $30 to $40 a month by not having both cell and regular phones.

Whether people on the move like him will go back to landlines when they settle down is one of the questions the industry is exploring.

So far, the 3 percent to 5 percent of cell phone users who have given up their landlines "haven't seen the economic benefits of paying twice for the same service," said Larson of the Washington association.

Phone companies say they aren't worried about the shift to wireless technology. They are adapting by bundling services and offering wireless options.

Link Hoewing, Verizon's assistant vice president for Internet and technology policy, doesn't mind growth in cell phone popularity because it "shows growth in the whole telecommunications pie."

In addition to running a wireless unit, Verizon is keeping its landlines relevant with newer services, like high-speed DSL Internet connections, which run through phone lines but don't require a separate line.

Still, change can be difficult. Many people who have given up their landlines are less fazed by cell phone annoyances like spotty reception than they are by losing the more peripheral pleasures of fixed phones.

"I miss the joy and agony of coming home and checking the answering machine and either seeing or not seeing that light blinking," Fogel said.

Of course, answering machines weren't commonplace until the mid- to late 1980s. Now many landline subscribers are using voicemail - maybe growing attached to the staccato dial tone that indicates a waiting message.


Enquirer reporter Mike Boyer contributed to this article.

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