The Quickening Pace of Landline Retirement

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Monday, February 12, 2024

Digital Beat

The Quickening Pace of Landline Retirement

Rob Frieden

Sooner rather than later, landline telephone service will completely transition to wireless and Internet-based calling (commonly referred to as Voice Over the Internet Protocol or "VoIP").  While the Federal Communications Commission, for over a decade, has precluded a “flash cut” service termination, I expect the timeline for copper wire service retirements to shorten. Last year, the FCC removed a federal statutory obligation for landline, copper service where “Plain Old Telephone Service” alternative service exists.

Recently, AT&T sought removal of its status as “Carrier of Last Resort” legally obligated to provide wireline phone service in California  and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) announced a series of public forums to consider the company’s application.

I recently gave up landline service despite reservations about the quality, cost, and user friendliness of alternatives.  I miss the “toll quality” sound, the ability to send faxes with ease, and having a standalone answering machine that readily shows inbound voicemails.  I can see how so-called “Digital Immigrants” (i.e. people born or brought up before the widespread use of digital technology) might not want to ascend the learning curve on setting up wireless voicemail and programming smartphones to provide notification of calls to a virtual mailbox for messages.

The big problem—particularly for the elderly and homes with fax machines, burglar alarms, and/or health monitoring—is the added risks and burdens that consumers must bear.  Landlines use power provided by the telephone company, while wireless and VoIP require home-provided power. Cellphones need daily recharging.  VoIP calling requires modems and special terminals that may run out of backup battery power after a few hours during a blackout.  

Recent emergencies like floods in California, Superstorm Sandy, hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions trigger days-long power outages. Wireline phone service rarely fails during these emergencies.

A few statistics worth noting:

  • About 30 percent of all U.S. households still have landline service, but most also have wireless service. 
  • 75 percent of U.S. households with seniors and people with certain medical conditions still rely on landline service. 
  • Fewer than 5 percent of Digital Natives (i.e., people less than 25 years of age), who meet the definition of what constitutes an independent household, solely subscribe to a landline service.

Because landline service involves local and intrastate service, state public utility commissions (not the FCC) have jurisdiction. I anticipate a faster pace of landline service closure requests to PUCs like that from AT&T in California. 

Consumer-friendly state regulators will hold public hearings, like those planned in California, and they likely will impose tough requirements before granting service terminations.  I anticipate a reduction to single-digit national market penetration within the next few years.  The top 100 urban markets should see service closure in the next 2-3 years. The Today Show for Feb. 8, 2024 has a piece that includes my forecast.

Rob Frieden is Academy and Emeritus Professor at Penn State University​. He is a leading analyst in the field of telecommunications and Internet infrastructure and has authored many comprehensive works on international telecommunications, Internet law and policy, cable television, and communications law. Professor Frieden has published over 100 journal articles and four books on various telecommunications topics.

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