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Land Lines – Endangered Phone Species?

PHOTO: Consumer advocates say land-line phones are still used widely, especially by seniors and those in rural areas, but telecom companies are pushing Internet-based alternatives which are much less regulated.  Courtesy Mark Scheerer.
PHOTO: Consumer advocates say land-line phones are still used widely, especially by seniors and those in rural areas, but telecom companies are pushing Internet-based alternatives which are much less regulated. Courtesy Mark Scheerer.
March 25, 2013

NEW YORK - Millions of consumers have cancelled their old land-line telephone service and replaced it with wireless phones. However, many seniors and people who live in rural areas still depend on land lines, and consumer watchdogs are making sure they don't lose them. Those who prefer a land line to a wireless phone because of potentially hazardous health effects, which are still being debated, can take heart, too.

Olivia Wein with the National Consumer Law Center said land-line phones will not disappear overnight.

"Over half of residential customers still have land line and wireless," she pointed out.

However, Wein said, much of the copper-wire pathway that phone calls travel from one land-line telephone to another is being replaced by Internet-based digital transmission, and telecom companies may benefit. They are trying to convince regulators that these digital calls have transformed into an "information service," with much less government regulation than traditional telephone service. Consumer groups have warned that this could result in higher prices and almost no monitoring or enforcement against rip-offs.

Ana Montes with The Utility Reform Network pointed out that new phones based on Internet-protocol (IP) can lose their battery charge in an emergency-related power outage.

"In many instances when there have been emergencies, people have relied upon pay phones, people have relied on land-line telephone service, and if we were to switch over to an entirely IP-based network, we could end up being in a real mess," Montes warned.

Montes said she is concerned that some seniors are being urged to "upgrade" to new Internet-based telephone services when their land lines are fine.

"It's being sold as, 'This is old technology; it's not useful technology; nobody is using that technology anymore,'" she charged. "That is not really accurate. There's still a reliance by a lot of different folks on the older technology."

This story was produced as part of the Media Consortium's Media Policy Reporting and Education Project, thanks to a generous grant from the Media Democracy Fund.

Mark Scheerer, Public News Service - NY