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Why I worry that landlines are endangered

A new survey by the Centers for Disease Control says about 20 percent of households only have wireless phones. Larry thinks cell phones are great but likes landlines too.

What I'm about to say may make me seem like a Luddite or curmudgeon, but I'm disturbed by the news that an increasing number of Americans are reachable only by wireless phones.

A new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than 20 percent of American homes have only cell phones and another 14.5 percent of homes received all or almost all calls via cell phones even though they had a landline. The CDC says that it's the largest six-month increase in reliance on cell phones since it started the survey in 2003.

I'm not against cell phones. I started carrying one around when the first luggable models became available in the mid-'80s. I never go anywhere without my BlackBerry. But I still have an old-fashioned "POTS" line ("plain old telephone service") at home in addition to a VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) phone from Ooma.

My POTS line has corded (not just cordless) phones, which means they'll work even if the power fails. I just feel more secure knowing that there's a hard-wired phone near my bed in case I suddenly need to call 911 or in case someone needs to get hold of me when my cell phone isn't handy, turned on, or charged up. As a parent of young adults, I am acutely aware of the trend away from landlines. I couldn't even give my kids a wired phone.

I installed a Vonage Internet phone at my son's apartment when he was a sophomore at college. But neither he nor his roommates ever used it, even though it came with free domestic long-distance calling. Whenever I tried calling it, I got no answer because they never bothered charging the battery on the cordless phone connected to the line.

I also offered to pay for a line for my daughter and her husband but neither of them wanted it. In fact, until they switched to cable, they had a phone line as part of their AT&T DSL package and never bothered plugging in a phone.

One reason I want my kids to have a landline is because cell phones are not 100 percent reliable. True, they get good service where they live, but I can't count the times I've called and gotten no answer because the battery was dead or because they left the handset in the car or at work or simply couldn't find it. When a call goes to voice mail immediately, that's often a clue of a dead battery or being out of range.

And of course there are those frequent times when the cell signal is just weak. The answer to "can you hear me now" might be yes, but the sound quality might still be awful.

Phone is more personal but less familial
Beyond mobility, cell phones have changed the nature of what it means to call a phone number. Until handheld cell phones, you would call a place rather than a person. Even car phones were hard-wired to cars. Back in the day, you would "call the house" or "call the office" hoping that the person or people you wanted to reach would pick up. Often that meant a different social dynamic.

When I called home from college I never knew if my mom, dad, or sister would pick up, and I talked to whoever happened to answer. Now it's not possible for me to call my daughter and son-in-law's house. I have to call them on their individual cell phones. Gone are the days of a boy calling his girlfriend's house only to have her father pick up the phone and put him through an inquisition before turning the phone over to his daughter. The phone now is more personal but it's less familial.

Some people live where there is poor cell phone service, or none. But now there are solutions for them, including the Samsung UbiCell, which picks up cell phone calls via the Internet and broadcasts them throughout the house. T-Mobile offers its T-Mobile @Home service which routes cell phone calls through a broadband router even if you can't get service over the air. And there are cell phone extenders like the zBoost YX510, which amplifies weak signals.

The fact that my twentysomething kids have shunned landlines wouldn't surprise researchers at the CDC. More than 2 in 5 adults ages 25-29 live in households with only wireless telephones, according to its data. As age increases so does the likelihood of having a landline. Adults living in poverty were more likely to be living in households with only a wireless phone.

One reason it's of interest to the CDC is because many health surveys are conducted by telephone and if they call phones with landlines they'll miss 1 in 5 households.

Of course, there are advantages to cell phones, most notably the ability to reach someone wherever they are, including at home or at work. I just wish cell phones and the people who use them were more reliable. I wonder if they'll ever make one that never needs charging and can't be misplaced?