Is it time to cut your landline for good?

When I left the Monitor as a full-time staffer to work from home as a freelance writer last fall, I knew that, among the various items I'd need to pursue this endeavor (laptop, wireless Internet, fax machine) would be a second phone line.

We already had one phone, a landline, that handled most of the family needs. But I was going to need a line for work-related calls. I wasn't all that enthused about getting another "regular phone" - appointments waiting for service people to come, holes drilled into my house, yet another way for telemarketers to contact me.

So I went to the local mall and bought a cellphone instead. Now I had a phone number that was all mine; I could carry the phone wherever I went; people could reach me when they needed me, and I had access to e-mail, text messaging, and the Web. I even started using the alarm clock feature to wake me up in the morning. And all for a price that was less than what I paid every month for my landline. Hmmm, I wondered, Why do I need that landline again?

Turns out, plenty of people are considering this option. According to a Harris Interactive Technology Research poll taken last spring, 9 percent of Americans have already switched from landlines to cellphones, another 5 percent were considering it within the next year, and a whopping 47 percent of Americans had given the idea some thought. Last summer the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a report showing that the number of cellphones in the United States had surpassed the number of landlines - 181.1 million cellphones versus 177.9 million landlines.

So I called a friend in Boston who had already made the switch from landline to cellphone to see what it's been like for her. Sara Steindorf and her husband, David Sterrett, have been mobile-only for about a year. Sara, who works for a public-relations firm, says cost and convenience were some of the main reasons she switched to a cellphone only.

"In our old apartment we had high-speed cable Internet, so we didn't need a landline," she says. "So why have a home phone?"

Sara finds more pluses than minuses to using a cellphone. But one of the drawbacks is when relatives call. "David's parents tend to call him on his phone and my parents on mine, so I don't get to talk to my in-laws as much as I would like," she says.

Other factors, however, may work against people moving to mobile only. Jim Grier, a consultant in mobile technology, wrote recently on TechBuilder.org that even with advances in technology, landlines have not become obsolete - yet. After writing about his own switch to a cellphone only in his weekly newsletter, Mr. Grier received lots of feedback from his subscribers about why landlines are still a good deal.

Landlines don't have batteries that run out and never need to be recharged in the middle of a call (unless you're using a cordless phone). The way most landline agreements work, it's pretty hard to "go over your minutes" and get billed extra. Some users find their cellphones have poor reception. And then there's the 911 situation.

"Most cellphones don't have GPS [Global Positioning], so 911 operators can't pinpoint the location of the caller" if there is a medical emergency, Grier wrote. "With landline phones, however, the 911 operator receives the exact address of the caller automatically."

Respondents in the Harris Interactive Poll also cited two other reasons for not switching to mobile phones only: the need for Internet access (high speed DSL service or dial-up) and lack of plans with good pricing.

So how do you decide if you should make the switch? Much of that answer depends on your personal situation. Single people or couples without children will find it easier to switch to cellphone-only service. Younger people who have grown up with a sense of mobility will appreciate this cellphone feature, along with the extras that come with a cellphone, such as text messaging, a way to take and store personal photos, and even a way to listen to music.

Families will probably want to have at least one landline in their homes for the safety reason mentioned above. And if you make a lot of international calls (as I do), in most cases you receive a much better rate on a landline.

The reality is that for now, most people see cellphones as a realistic choice as the "second phone" in the house, or for a small business. Even people who only use cellphones for voice conversations might get a basic landline for Internet access or as a fax line. But even if you want a landline, there is an increasingly common way to get that line - Voice over Internet (VoIP).

I'll investigate that prospect in my next column, which will appear in two weeks.

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