News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

May 29, 2010

Mark Bennett: Changing landscape of communication leaves more homes relying on cell phones instead of ‘family’ landlines

TERRE HAUTE — Someday, perhaps soon, one of the most common questions of the past century may disappear.

It used to happen around 6:30 in the evening. The house phone rings, family members scattered around the house slowly move toward it until someone finally says, “I’ve got it.” They pick it up, push the button and hear …

“Is John home?” (Or Seth, or Jessica, or Linda — whatever name applies.)

Cell phone callers typically don’t open their conversations with that question. It’s unnecessary. They already know who they’ve reached, because the cell belongs to the person they’ve called. The recipient doesn’t have to be home to take a phone call. With cell phones, we’re reachable anytime and almost anywhere, individually.

The family phone — technologically known as a landline — is fading into Americana’s rearview mirror.

Nearly one out of every four households in the U.S. relies on wireless-only phone service, meaning those folks have cell phones but no landline, according to a report released this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC). (The CDC tracks wireless and landline use to ensure accuracy in its National Health Interview Survey, based on random phone calls.) That statistic — 24.5 percent of American homes — is based on surveys taken in the last six months of 2009. It’s an increase of 4.3 percent from the same period in 2008. In 2006, just 11 percent of households were wireless only.

In reality, the trend is even more widespread. Another 15 percent of Americans have landlines, but use their cell phones for all or almost all of their calls.

Parents may wonder if they’ll ever again overhear their teenager getting asked out on a first date.

With a once-common family phone, “you’d at least get some glimmer of what’s going on,” said David Waterman, a father and professor of telecommunications at Indiana University.

Now, that son or daughter may take that call on their own cell phone in the privacy of their own room, outside on the sidewalk or in their car. “More and more people are putting phones in the hands of their children,” said Michelle Gilbert, public relations manager for Verizon Wireless of Indiana. If they live with parents, chances are they each have a cell phone, too.

That’s one reason the 812 area code for southern Indiana is expected to run out of new seven-digit phone number combinations by 2013, according to an Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission report released last month. The volume of data handled through mobile phones will be 40 times greater in 2014 than today, said Brian Ducharmem, VP and general manager of AT&T mobility and consumer markets in Indiana.

The changing landscape of communication will divide us into individuals, linked, perhaps, by a family plan.

With a cell phone in every jeans pocket or purse, that iconic song image of someone “waiting by the phone” for that important call will become moot. We’ll be waiting for a vibration or ringtone, and won’t have to sift through calls for your 11-year-old or your spouse.

“That is a cultural issue the last generation faced that the current generation doesn’t,” Stephen Blumberg, the senior scientist and author of the CDC report, said in a phone interview Tuesday.

That cultural shift tells us something about our nation, circa 2010. The people who’ve taken that step of cutting their landlines have done so for different reasons.

Some are dealing with the hard economic times. Forty-three percent of renters had wireless-only homes, nearly three times the rate for homeowners. Within that group, some moved to rentals after losing a family home to foreclosure. Dropping the family phone was a way to cut costs. Thirty-six percent of people living below the poverty level — a $22,000 household income for a family of four — have cell phones and no landline.

But renters also tend to be younger, and folks identified as Generation Y’ers and Millennials — born between the mid-1970s and 2000 — are more likely to rely exclusively on their mobile. Nearly half of 25- to 29-year-olds (48.6 percent) live that way. Only 5.2 percent of adults older than 65 do the same.

“There’s no question about that,” said Blumberg. “We’ve certainly seen that wireless dependency is more common among the so-called ‘young and the restless.’”

The pace of technology — which rusted 8-tracks, rotary phones and fax machines — makes that choice less tumultuous.

That trend toward wireless-only households diverted in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when cell phones in New York City largely failed but many landlines continued functioning. “That convinced some to maintain their landlines,” Blumberg said.

Some Americans keep landlines to retain a “family phone,” Blumberg added, instead of giving way to split identities for each spouse and child.

Others count on their landline for reliable, clear signals for important calls, said Waterman at IU. They also connect households to DSL and cable-TV service, he added.

But the cord still can be cut with less repercussions. Verizon Wireless, for example, sells a $250 cell site booster that enhances the signal and eliminates weak reception spots in a house, Gilbert said. Wireless Internet connectivity is also available from Verizon and various carriers, she said. Also, the cost of adding a cell phone or two at $10 or $20 extra a month could offset a $60 landline bill, she added.

Before converting, “Do your homework,” Gilbert said.

Most likely, only the 35-and-up crowd will agonize over that decision, and wistfully recall trying to stretch the phone cord far enough around the kitchen doorway to get a dash of privacy. For those younger, the big question isn’t “Is Beth home?” — it’s “Can you hear me now?”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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