We know only a few people who still have landlines. Everyone else either gave theirs up or didn’t bother to get one in the first place. We got very little sympathy during the election when, as swing state voters, our landline got up to 20 robo calls a day. “Get rid of the thing,” people told us. (We got robo calls on our cells too.) But we’re holding out.
Our cell numbers have changed several times in the last few years but our home phone has stayed the same. It’s the line our elderly relatives have used for years, the line we list on important documents. It’s also the line we use for our little farm, where our customers call about eggs, honey, and grass-fed beef.
But I think the real reason we keep a landline is because we know what it means to be cut off from communication during a disaster. As people discovered in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, wireless networks aren’t reliable when the power grid has been knocked out. No electricity, no cell. That’s exactly when we most need to communicate.
Good old copper-wire phone networks were built as public utilities, expected to provide stability even during times of crisis. That means landlines and pay phones still put calls through when the power is out. But every year fewer of us have access to those phones. A third of U.S. households are wireless only, and of the lowest-income people, over half live in wireless-only homes. And pay phones, which once waited at every convenient corner, are rapidly disappearing. Back in 2000 there were 2.2 million; the U.S. has 425,000 today. Traditional phone lines are still vulnerable to earthquakes and, in some instances, flooding. But emergency plans by wireless providers don’t always include backup power for cell towers, and when there is backup power it only stays on until the batteries give out or until the generators run out of fuel. (As we know, gas pumps also require electricity to pump that fuel.) Hurricane Sandy knocked out cell reception for a quarter of cell customers in 10 states. In an unprecedented act of collaboration, AT&T and T-Mobile are temporarily sharing networks to help residents of New York and New Jersey who have been without service.
The problem isn’t limited to disasters that rob us of electricity. Eleven years ago, two of my children were on an educational trip with their uncle to Washington, D.C. Their itinerary for that day? The White House and the Pentagon. The date? Sept. 11. After the attacks we couldn’t get through to them for many long hours and had no way of knowing if they were safe. Each call resulted in an “all circuits busy” message. Their uncle spent those hours driving towards home, finally stopping at a pay phone to call us from landline to landline. That call went through.
We talk about getting rid of our landline nearly every time we pay the bill. We’re not entirely sure it’s worth it. But last week the edge of Hurricane Sandy hit our area, causing power outages and again, smartphones were quiet and our clunky old landline phones hummed with reassuring dial tones. I think we’ll hang on to them awhile longer. If you don’t have one, remember this if disaster strikes: Find a Luddite.