A Cellphone-Only World? Not So Fast

Is the landline “good as dead”? That’s what some media outlets would have you believe from their coverage earlier this year of a report on cellphone-only households. This sensational message makes for eye-catching headlines — but a closer look reveals a different story.

Most Americans Still Live in Landline Households

Many U.S. households have ditched their landlines and now rely solely on cellphones, according to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Indeed, the data show that 4 out of 10 adults age 18 or older live in households with only wireless telephones.

But that means that 6 out of 10 adults — roughly 140 million people — continue to live in households with landline phones.

Percentage of Older Adults with Cellphones and Landlines
Most Older Adults Choose the Wired and Wireless Life

Nothing in the CDC data suggests that the end of the landline phone is imminent. However, it does provide insights on the needs of older Americans:

  • The vast majority of older adults live in households with landline phones.
  • Older adults own cellphones at rates approaching the general population.
  • Most older adults have both a landline and a wireless phone.


A Landline Is a Reliable Lifeline

Why are most older adults reluctant to hang up on landline service?

Many value the convenience, mobility and sense of security offered by cellphones, surveys show. At the same time, most are not shutting down their landlines. Some point to the lower price and superior call quality in comparison to wireless service. Some say that familiarity with landline service is a factor. However, the most common reason is service reliability.

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Landline phone companies have long said that their customers can pick up the phone and get a working dial tone 99.999 percent of the time. Few people expect that level of reliability with cellphone service. Even when the electricity goes out, copper-based landline service continues to function (landline phone service that connects to the Internet via Voice over Internet Protocol technology, or VoIP, is more vulnerable to outages; it will not work during a power failure unless backup batteries are in place. Roughly, 47 percent of residential customers with landline voice service have VoIP).

In emergencies, landlines are lifelines. When someone calls 911 from a cellphone, the location information is often inaccurate or imprecise, particularly if the call comes from inside a home or building. As a result, emergency personnel frequently have trouble finding callers in a timely manner — a problem that contributes to an estimated 10,000 deaths each year.

But when the call comes in from a landline phone, the emergency dispatcher automatically sees the caller’s address on a map and immediately knows where to send help. This is a critical public safety feature, especially when the caller is unable to speak or provide correct information.

When cellphone service provides such security at home, many more Americans may choose to use a cellphone exclusively. But until then, the landline is far from dead.

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