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Why people are holding onto landline phones in rural areas

In a small town at the foothills of Mount Rainier, about 45 miles southeast of Seattle, the views are epic, but the cell reception is spotty.

Susan Reiter has had a landline in her Enumclaw, Wash., home since 1978. The power goes out multiple times a year, says Reiter, usually caused by fierce wind and other weather events. But the landline always works, she says, making it her best option if there’s an emergency and she needs to call 911.

“There are people out in rural America that need this service,” Reiter, 77, says. “Maybe it’s not a big number, but for those people it’s a safety issue.”

The number of landline users has plummeted with the rise of cellphones, and the 19th-century technology’s days appear to be numbered. Providers like AT&T are looking to exit the business by transitioning customers to cellphones or home telephone service over broadband connections. But for many of the millions of people still clinging to their copper-based landline telephones, newer alternatives are either unavailable, too expensive, or are unreliable when it matters most: in an emergency.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, only a quarter of adults in the United States still have landlines and only around 5 percent say they mostly or only rely on them. The largest group of people holding onto their landlines are 65 and older. Meanwhile, more than 70 percent of adults are using wireless phones only.

The copper lines used for traditional landlines carry electricity over the wires, so as long as a phone is corded or charged it will work during a power outage. Landlines are separate from cellular and broadband networks and are not affected by their outages, making them a necessary backstop in rural areas. Many of those same areas have inadequate cellular or internet coverage.

“In three, four, maybe five years a lot of states are going to say ‘Okay, it’s permissible to discontinue service if you, the phone company, can demonstrate there’s functional alternative service,’ ” says Rob Frieden, an Academy and Emeritus Professor of Telecommunications and Law at Pennsylvania State University.

AT&T recently asked the California Public Utilities Commission to end its obligation to provide landline service in parts of the state. The Federal Communications Commission, which has to approve a request to end service, said it hasn’t received one from AT&T.

“We spend more than a billion dollars a year in California maintaining our legacy network and services that are used by 5 percent of households today and this is rapidly declining,” Susan Johnson, AT&T’s head of wireline transformation said in an email. “That’s about as efficient as cooling an entire high-rise building in the heat of the summer with residents only occupying one floor.”

Hundreds of California residents called into CPUC public meetings last week to share their opinions on AT&T’s request. The vast majority said maintaining landline service was a safety issue, citing power outages, wildfires and floods as times when their landlines are the only way to reach 911 or get information on evacuations. Many said eliminating landlines would disproportionally affect elderly, disabled and lower-income people.

The callers, primarily seniors, also said they couldn’t get or afford reliable cell or internet service where they lived. Some struggle with learning to use new technology or simply don’t like cellphones — one woman called cellphones “the decline of civilization as we know it.”

Despite the request, AT&T says it is not cutting off copper landline customers at this time, and people can still sign up for a new landline. However, like other landline companies, it is hoping to transition those customers to alternatives.

One option is cellular service, but coverage isn’t consistent for people in less populated parts of the country and there is a risk of outages. An AT&T cellular outage on Feb. 22 left millions of customers across the United States without service for hours, according to the FCC which is investigating the incident.

Another alternative is VoIP, or voice-over internet protocol, phone service. It’s a phone line carried over the internet instead of copper, and can be used with a traditional home phone, corded or cordless.

That’s how Liz Bleakley, 39, runs her business, Good Hands Creamery. Bleakley only used a cellphone in her old life working in health care in Atlanta. But three years ago, when she moved to the Windsor, Vermont, area with her husband to become an artisanal raw-milk cheese maker, she realized her cellphone wasn’t going to cut it.

“We had the wonderful experience of moving into our house and looking at our cellphones and there’s this moment of horror: There’s no bars,” Bleakley said in an interview over her home phone after losing cell service. “It’s terrible — your calls drop and you have to plan out times and situations in which you’ll be able to carry on a conversation with someone.”

In a rural, mountainous area where snowstorms are common, she wanted to have an option for emergencies and conducting business. Instead of getting a regular landline, Bleakley signed up for cable internet and got a VoIP number.

The Biden administration has committed tens of billions of dollars to expand broadband service across the United States, which could help ween people off copper lines. But even if everyone had reliable access, there would still be issues like power outages, software glitches and affordability.

Some cable phone lines come with backup batteries that can last a couple hours if there’s a power outage, but when the power is out for days the home will need another option like a generator.

Victor Lund, 57, has a more reliable, if expensive, backup plan. The tech consultant from Arroyo Grande, Calif., bought satellite phones for his family. The small devices look like an old Nokia feature phone with an antenna, and can hold a charge for months or a year if turned off, Lund says. He prepaid $300 for a 200 minutes and hasn’t had to use any yet.

“There’s lots of places where a cellphone won’t work in what I’d call civilization in California,” said Lund, who regularly goes four-wheeling and exploring across the state.

Other options are coming out regularly. Apple added a satellite-connected emergency response service to the iPhone 14 in 2022 and is not yet charging for the feature, though could in the future.

For people with a landline they’ve had for decades, the promise of new technology doesn’t compete with the security of something that has worked for so long.

On their 123-acre timber farm in Longview, Wash., Lisa and Robert Sudar have all the options. They have cellphones that work if they walk up a nearby hill, an internet connection, a VoIP phone and Starlink satellite service. And in a drawer in their hallway, there’s an old Princess phone connected to a landline — the only thing that works during a power outage.

“It just provides us a lot of security as a population to have landlines available,” said Robert Sudar, who’s 70. “It’s another way to communicate with people when the power goes out, and it’s a national security issue in my opinion.”

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