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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the requirement to cover rural areas and to offer landline service at all: "The universal landline requirement has been repealed already in Florida, North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin."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?