Home phone: Going, going… gone?


Saturday afternoon, there’s an explosion up the street (although we didn’t hear it), and the power goes out. A transformer has blown out a block away from us.

No harm done, or so I thought (other than interrupting the Olympics I was watching; now I’ll never see that handball match between Sweden and Denmark). I took the kids up to the tot lot to play in the sand, and later Kimi picked us up to go out for sushi boats. A power cut is certainly one way to get me out of the house.

But Sunday, when I called home, the phone just kept on ringing. Turned out our home phone system (a Uniden three-handset system I had picked up several years ago at Costco) got fried when the power came back on Saturday evening, and was stuck in a permanent reboot loop.

This morning when I called Uniden for support, they walked me through a hard reset, but no luck. They had no alternatives for me — they don’t even have a repair facility at all. It was out of warranty, so toss it and buy a new one. What a waste.

Time to go back to Costco and buy a new one, right?

Well, hold on a second. The nationwide trend is towards ditching home phone service. The National Center for Health Statistics has a very interesting article and graph showing the wireless-only trend (totally random federal agency research for the win): Wireless-only households went up from 12.6% during the first six months of 2007 to 14.5% in the last six months. So, about one out of seven U.S. homes no longer have a landline.

NCHS wireless-only household statistics

Meanwhile, AT&T lost a million landline subscribers in their last quarter (per gigaom).

I was all set to cancel my home phone number today (despite my geeky attachment to the phone number, which ends in 8486 — spelling out TIVO as a mnemonic).

There are certainly some advantages to a home phone:

  • Unlimited local minutes. Unless you’re paying a huge amount for an unlimited cell phone plan, chances are you’re paying attention to how many minutes you spend on your cell. Families with gabby teenagers need the cost convenience of a home phone with unlimited usage.
  • 911 ease of mind. Despite improvements, 911 calls from a cell are not as reliable: You’re usually calling a very remote emergency center, which has more limited ability to learn your location. Additionally, cell phones can more easily run out of battery or otherwise be unavailable for use.
  • Disaster/power loss ease of mind. Assuming you have a handset that doesn’t require being plugged in, when there’s a local disaster such as an earthquake, the landline is more likely to work than the cell phone.
  • Archaic requirements. Some companies that you do business with really want you to have a home phone, and don’t know how to deal with you if you don’t have one. I’ve heard that one contributor to your credit score is how long you’ve had the same landline phone number.
  • Inconvenience of updating all your friends and database entries: What a pain to tell everyone you know that you no longer have a home phone.
  • “Home” sense: My cell phone number is only for me, and it’s usually in my pocket. My wife’s cell phone number is hers, and it’s usually in her purse. But my kids don’t have cells (too young), and what if someone wants to reach any of us but only if we happen to be at home? (Not that my kids are old enough to answer the phone yet.) But that’s what a home phone number “means”: Anyone who’s home. A cell phone doesn’t mean the same thing — it’s for a specific person, and even today a cell phone call seems more “urgent” than a call to a home phone number.

The downside of a home phone is primarily the cost (and the cost of ownership of those power-spike-vulnerable handsets): I was paying over $30 a month for unlimited local and a certain amount of included long distance.

We certainly didn’t miss having a home phone during the four months of the remodel where we weren’t home anyway. So, like I said, I was all set to ditch the home phone number. But when I can called to cancel, not surprisingly, AT&T was very willing to make me a deal to keep me as a customer. So, sucker that I am, as an experiment, before ditching our home phone service completely, I have decided to give the home phone number an extension (hah!). I’ve reduced the cost to $6 a month (plus tax) by removing call waiting, switched to a measured rate, and removed long distance.

We can still receive unlimited calls, and we pay $0.02 per outgoing call. My estimate is we make very few outgoing calls, so that it’s not worth paying $4 a month more for unlimited local calling. If I’m wrong, I can switch back to unlimited, and still save $20 a month from what we were paying.

After several months, I’ll evaluate the bills and the usage. If we no longer need the home number, I’ll join those one out of seven households that have cut the cord.

In the meantime, I have three perfectly functioning Uniden handsets, but no base station and no answering machine. If I can find a cheap replacement for the busted base station, I may replace it. If not, well, now you know why our home phone number just rings and rings when we’re not home.

7 Responses to “Home phone: Going, going… gone?”

  1. Scrappy Says:

    Thanks for the heads up!

    Btw, as long as you have a phone plugged into the wall you can dial 911. Even without service. So it’s always good to have a noncordless phone around in case of power outages.


  2. Justin Says:

    Hey Stephen,

    Do it – do it – do it!

    I’ve not had a landline since 1999. The only time I’ve missed it is when the internet has gone down, and I don’t even have a dialup alternative.

    Now, I don’t have a family, so I can’t comment on some of the bigger downsides, but I have a feeling that cell phones will be so ubiquitous (more than they already are) by the time that Sammy and Sophie get old enough to ‘receive calls’ that they’ll have their own phones, it’ll just be ‘how it’s done’, not just for those who are spoiled rotten! 😉 And before they have their phones, family might have to call one parent, then the other, to get ahold of the kids.

    I would highly recommend doing it, but only if you have good cellphone coverage in most areas in your house.


  3. Lacy Tree Says:

    I haven’t had a landline for several years. I had to make the choice between internet or phone…I went with internet. I have my cell and I’m pretty good about how many minutes I use. Plus, I send a lot of text messages.

  4. Justin Says:

    “Some companies that you do business with…”

    I’ve never had this problem. Generally they can’t tell the difference, and when they ask for a home number I give the cell number. If they ask if I have a non-cell number, and say “no”, I’ve never been denied business. It’s getting common enough that most people don’t blink anymore.

  5. Stephen Says:

    Good suggestions, guys, thanks.

    Over in the FriendFeed discussion of this post, @nor posted a link to this age-based chart showing a breakdown of phone use by age group for single-person households. Among 25-34 year olds, looks like more than 40% are cell phone-only households.

  6. Kimberly Says:

    $30 for only a certain amount of LD? I pay $28.99 for unlimited Vonage usage. The only downside is that I had to configure QoS in my Netscreen I can talk on the phone and play WoW at the same time.

    I actually *had* ditched a landline for my cell, but I found myself going over my 500 minutes a month way too often, and I can’t wait for 7pm PDT (nighttime minutes) to call the east coast.

  7. Stephen Says:

    And adding $30 worth of daytime minutes to your cell plan didn’t get you enough minutes, so you went with Vonage instead?

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