The death of landlines – woe to seniors who depend on them

Bad weather, no power, misery all around.  So by now you may know that there was a major storm that generated (besides rain and lightning) outages in the greater Washington, DC area that brought Amazon and Netflix down for a while, and knocked out Internet, TV, cellular and landline access (including E911) for several million people – and for several days.  For 1 in 4 people, it will be a few more days before the various utilities get everything running again. You also know that only 56% of those aged 76+ have a cell phone and that seniors have been the last to give up landlines.  

Carriers loath landlines – a highly regulated business.  The constraints of regulation limit carriers like Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T from price flexibility comparable to the open market free-for-all that reflects the cellular landscape. And those carriers are yearning to be free.  Since one-third of homes have replaced their landline phones with cellular, carriers dream (aka lobby) of ending the requirement to cover rural areas and to offer landline service at all: "The universal landline requirement has been repealed already in Florida, North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin."  So much for the guaranteed availability of 911 access (E911) pinpointing your call to a specific address, including apartment number.  In the DC area, E911 was unavailable – even as it is supposedly part of our national preparedness. Uh, right.

So what’s to get everybody to have cell phones?  You would think that the carriers would know how to make the cell phone/landline combination an appealing transition for moving the remaining 68% of the population (that would be of all age groups) who still have landlines. This is another one of those transition points that is not necessarily instantaneous. Remember analog to digital TV? How about paper statements to online only? – guess what, lobbying prevailed for Social Security and seniors -- paper is coming back. But the idea with each of these was the same: halt a service that is costing the provider a great deal of money; but as an unforeseen side effect, the change removes a service that the older population still needs and depends on. Furthermore, consistent cellular access is still not available in some rural areas.

The fact is, older adults still need both types of service.  At the end of 2011, according to CTIA, the average local monthly wireless bill among all subscribers in the USA was $47/month with an "average local call length of 1.78 minutes."  (Uh, I guess we knew that young folk like to text more than talk.) And the average consumer spend on landlines in the US is $50/month.  Now let’s just think about these two (relatively similar) numbers. The outage of landline access in the DC area was an anomaly for what is generally an available (and taxpayer-subsidized) service – that is just there. Until it isn't -- see DC outage, see states named above or these hurricane ‘tips’).  What older adults really need is access to both landline and wireless. But that looks like $100/month, $1200/year on average for those who don’t qualify for state-subsidies based on Medicaid-level of income. So wouldn’t you think if the carriers really wanted out of providing these landlines that seniors depend on, how about AARP, NCOA and other senior advocates getting a real commitment from them on a better transition plan? 

Stick to wired.

My sick, elderly Mother was just stuck in her powerless, waterless, 12th floor apt due to Sandy. Her Verizon Fios phone ran out at 3am the first night, her blackout went on for another week. Wired lines in the building still worked. And Verizon won't change her back, they lie and claim it's impossible.

My advice to all is do not change to Voip and think your cell phone will pick up the slack if there's an emergency. Here in NYC it was near impossible to make a cell call or to find any power to charge your cell phone.

Laurie, For once, I'm going

Laurie,
For once, I'm going to disagree with you. Why does a person need both a landline and a cell phone in today's age? It seems the arguments presented are largely misdirected or the reality behind the situation isn't fully known.
I would refute that it's for reliability. The big telecom companies (not cable companies) are mandated by the FCC for reliability, how the network is built, backup power, and response time to fixing a network outage. Many of these telecom lines are also feeding the cell towers. If the line goes down, then both the cell phone tower and the landline customer are likely to be down.
Convenience? More than 99% of Americans are covered by cellular service. If they want the convenience of having their phone with them, then they can go cellular and don't need a landline. The other 1% can rely on the landline. If they are a senior in the 1% that aren't covered by cellular, then they are probably VERY rural and there will be bigger issues on how to get them access to other care resources.
Cost? Both landlines and cellular options are subsidized for low-income people (FREE). Both have non-subsidized options as low as $15-25 per month. An individual can choose which they want. If they don't meet the low-income threshhold, then they can probably afford $15-25.
Regulation Constraints? Regulation is what's keeping those companies from dropping the bottom tier of customers, largely occupied by seniors. Regulation isn't artificially inflating prices, its forcing companies to cover populations they wouldn't otherwise serve. It forces them to offer services like 911. Without regulation it would look like the cable situation, where it took cable companies 25 years to offer phone service and competitively reliable Internet access.

Our biggest concern is the elimination of the Universal Services fund. These funds have become antiquated in their purpose, but instead of eliminating them they need to be repurposed for getting broadband Internet access available to every American. Instead of just subsidizing phone service, broadband could be subsidized for those in need.

Connect America, Cell Coverage and Disasters

Carl, There is already a reform of the Universal Service Fund called the Connect America Fund. It is already in play - current landline incumbent telephone companies have funds set aside for them that will help them phase over to the new plan in 3 years. They can choose to take them or not. The rules are in a missive that is 750 pages long. Some incumbents will likely refuse the funds since there are some mandates attached to them. The Connect America fund is seeking proposals from groups to learn how to subsidize broadband in pilot demonstration projects. We should watch the pilots and see how they shake out. That will give us some major clues about how broadband subsidies will be run in the long term. With regard to your comments about cellular coverage, I must disagree with you. Being in Southern California, I can point out quite a number of unserved cell areas, no disaster needed, in urban areas. There are vast differences in coverage by different providers. Many seniors I know have cell phones, but don't turn them on. Cell phones are *still* far more expensive than most landlines around here and, with the bundles that both cable and telcos offer, most seniors don't think they need to use their cells for those "expensive" calls. Many seniors I know also feel obligated to answer their phones (unlike most of my peers and youngsters who let them roll to voice mail that they never check.) For real use, elders have to replace their home phones with some sort of bluetooth interface phone system. And, frankly, this complicates their lives more than they wish. But, cell phones are useful and I recommend that all seniors at least get a prepaid phone for emergencies.

Look at the transition from analog to digital TV. Years of education preceded the actual cutover. The same has to occur if the US goes to a wireless only system since so many older adults depend on them. For years, the phone companies have told people that they *needed* their wired phones for 911. While that is changing with E911, most people don't know that. With regard to the 'disaster' preparedness of the wired and mobile systems, it depends on the situation. Wired telephone providers have to guarantee 8 hours of service, even if power is down. But, if the wired line is also down, no service. Seniors who have any sort of chronic condition or are frail should request that the phone company and the power company put them on their emergency restoral list - so that their service comes back first. Cell phones are useful for some and I recommend that all seniors at least get a prepaid phone for emergencies. In the last fire, my office landline and broadband wired connections were burnt down and the phone company told us it would be 30-45 days for repair. Once upon a time, the US had the best telephone system in the world. We don't anymore. Cellular prices, according to the OECD, are one of highest in the world. (http://www.oecd.org/document/9/0,3746,en_21571361_44315115_48129353_1_1_1_1,00&&en-USS_01DBC.html, http://www.oecd.org/document/21/0,3343,fr_2649_201185_43471316_1_1_1_1,00.html, http://www.theverge.com/2012/3/15/2876459/shared-cellular-data-plans-editorial) OECD also says broadband speeds are bad.

As a knowledgeable friend recently told me when we were discussing the recent spate of state-based legislation that the phone companies have launched: "There was an earlier attempt to re-write the 96 Act under Sen. Ted Stevens, then chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee (forever branding him as "Tubes" Stevens). In 2005 AT&T wanted to get into the video business but rather than have to pass muster in every locality, the bill sought to nationalize the franchise process by providing for state-wide video franchises. When that bill foundered, AT&T abandoned the federal model and sought state legislation that would supersede local franchises. They succeeded in every state in which they had a significant local presence so that today every state provides for state-wide video franchising. VZ stuck with the old model. In both cases, wired video of course became irrelevant as their core business model has changed and focuses on wireless services. This earlier history does illustrate AT&T's political potency and ability to get what it wants." Here is the TURN position on the CA legislation underway: http://www.turn.org/article.php?id=1848. It says: "While masquerading as legislation with limited application to VOIP only, in reality SB 1161 would mean the end of regulatory oversight over large monopoly phone companies. Consumers would no longer be able to turn to a state agency for resolution of complaints, and would be left utterly defenseless." Live in the digital lane is a hurdle for many, particularly elders. We need to provide respect and the appropriate help before we abandon them.

Competitive Free for All?

Laurie, your comment "open market free-for-all that reflects the cellular landscape" is not true. It is a remonopolized business based on pricing plans/bundles at retail and backhaul services. Michael

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