The end of landlines?

Seniors fear deregulation may leave them without service


The market for smart phones has reached the saturation point in the United States; it's hard to find anyone who doesn't have a mobile device. Hard, maybe — but not impossible. There are still thousands of people, many of them seniors, who rely on that old-fashioned, low-tech landline for their inexpensive connection to the world — and they're about to lose out.

The deregulation of the telecommunications industry has reached the point where phone companies in California and elsewhere are getting ready to pull out and disconnect the copper wires that support traditional landlines — which, by law, have to be made available at dirt-cheap rates to low-income people.

And while so-called Lifeline rates for cell phones are coming, they aren't available yet.

"It's extremely important," Nick Pasquariello, a senior and low-income resident of San Francisco who uses a landline with a Lifeline rate, told us. Like many seniors, Pasquariello says his old phone is cheaper, more reliable and simpler than a wireless plan.

"The technology and rates are changing all the time. It's confusing," he says, adding that the end of landlines would be detrimental to many people. "I haven't heard of Lifeline for cell phones."

So over the next year or two, seniors could find themselves disconnected. "It's clear to us that companies like AT&T and Verizon are planning to get rid of their copper networks," said Paul Goodman of the Greenlining Institute in Berkeley, which conducts public policy research and advocacy. Telecom companies have spent years lobbying to retire those lines, arguing that they're expensive to maintain, which explains why they've been remiss when it comes to their upkeep.

"The phone companies are not repairing or maintaining old copper networks. They don't want the responsibility," Goodman explained.

Basic utilities like phone service have long been considered necessities and legislators have ensured that every household has access to them.

But replacing copper with newer technology makes better business sense. "It's more lucrative to operate the VoIP and wireless networks," Mark Toney, Executive Director of The Utility Reform Network, or TURN, told us. "They're able to charge more per month and the profits are greater."

The deregulation of phone service is nothing new; it started back in 1984 with the break up of AT&T. But it's reaching the point where there's little oversight at all.

In 2011, lawmakers in Wisconsin passed the Telecommunications Modernization Act and last year, virtually eliminating state regulation of phone companies. In New Hampshire, Governor John Lynch signed a similar bill into law. In California, SB 1161 went into effect a few months ago, lifting the California Public Utilities Commission's regulatory power over internet-based phone services like VoIP and IP, among other things.

The bill's passage caused consumer advocates to argue that deregulation would lead to price gouging and unfair business practices like cramming (or unauthorized third party charges found on a customer's bill).

"We're concerned with making sure consumers and seniors still have their protections which we think should apply regardless of the technology," said Michael Richard, associate state director of advocacy for AARP.

Right now, Lifeline service is only offered through landlines. Retiring copper wire networks, and thus traditional landline service, could eliminate Lifeline altogether.

As the telecommunications industry has upgraded its products and services to accommodate newer technology, the CPUC has been forced to rethink its idea of what basic service looks like. Bill Johnston, Telecommunications Advisor to CPUC Commissioner Catherine Sandoval, told us the commission is working to make improvements.


they are for cable TV or internet. Right now, many houses thave three types of wire going into their house - landline, cable TV and internet. There is no reason any longer why any home needs more than one.

So, for instance, you see all these "three in one" ad's which provide a landline but thru a cable and modem. Why not?

I have a land line that works perfectly, and no copper from a phone company.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 23, 2013 @ 11:22 am

lines going into the house--telephone and cable TV--with internet traveling over one of them.

Posted by Eddie on Jan. 25, 2013 @ 4:33 pm

Our household is probably one of the few that does not have cell phones or cable television, although I know some others. The sound quality from a cell phone is generally way inferior to the good old-fashioned copper wire landline.

I understand the advantages of cell phones for mobility and constant availability. But it comes with a cost (at least $50/month,) and for those of us who came of age without cell phones, we can still function just fine without them.

Finally, don't most traditional businesses still use landlines from AT&T? What will happen to them if AT&T pulls the plug? Must they depend on cell phones with crappy sound quality?

Posted by Eddie on Jan. 23, 2013 @ 8:59 pm

I managed to avoid feeling like I needed a cell phone for the longest time.

Eventually, I was given one by a "tech-savvy" employer and I found the ability to remain in contact even when a landline was out of the question to be quite seductive and quite satisfying: sometimes I could handle work over the phone while I remained out doing fun stuff.

Over the long haul, though, it seems possible that the *loss* of freedom -- the freedom from being in contact -- may indeed balance any gain.

If we had a choice of getting our work instructions either through the mail or through electrical impulses directly our skin -- which would be more efficient? Which would we prefer?

Perhaps the technology is not expressing inate Human traits.

Posted by lillipublicans on Jan. 23, 2013 @ 10:04 pm

when there were no more pay phones.

I knew where all of them were in the Mission, as they went away or went un-repaired I had to get a cell phone from work.

You can get one for 30 bucks a month from metro pcs, if you wait for a special you can get one for less.

Cable TV is all infomercials.

Posted by matlock on Jan. 24, 2013 @ 12:29 am

BART stations still have them.

Posted by Eddie on Jan. 24, 2013 @ 7:31 am

Good point regarding businesses, though a lot use business phone companie's it's still ATT wire. Also I wonder about ATT DSL 3 tiers of which use copper land lines. Fiberoptics for the rip off u-verse and the 4th tier of DSL.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 25, 2013 @ 4:25 pm

I loves my land line, cell reception in my corner of the North Mission is as good as one might find in a remote Tennessee holler. And if you keep a non-mobile handset about you can use that land line when the power is down. We got an alligator clip-on old school repair person's handset for use in just such an emergency.

But that iPhone is a lifesaver for the internet in my pocket when I'm out and about, not to mention games to alleviate boredom while standing in line or waiting somewhere.

Posted by socram on Jan. 24, 2013 @ 7:57 am

I'd really hate to see landlines go extinct. I'm making do right now with a smartphone and Skype, but I would love to get a landline again one day. In my experience nothing beats them for great, consistent sound quality and the sweet, sweet freedom from dropped calls.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 26, 2013 @ 11:23 am

Traditional landlines are not affected by power outtages, or internet outtages. THAT is the reason that they will have to pry mine from my cold dead hand.

Posted by Guest on May. 09, 2013 @ 6:20 am

I always use a landline whenever possible because the conversation always flows better. Whenever I receive a mobile call in my office, I forward it to my landline.

Mobile conversations feel less than synchronous with too many hesitations due to inability to hear the other person well. Often there is too much background noise with mobile users or the sound quality is impaired when using Bluetooth earpieces or car systems.

The audio quality of a landline is almost always superior to mobile phones. My TimeWarner cable VOIP phone at home is 99% as good as a POTS line, but I've have some technical glitches that TimeWarner cannot fix. There are two additional reasons to maintain a POTS landline, which we do, with the first being our security alarm requires it for communications and secondly we will have phone service during a power outage or disaster.

Posted by matthew on Aug. 22, 2013 @ 6:03 am

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