Dallas County

Phasing Out Landlines Could Spell Trouble For Seniors and Businesses Both Big and Small

According to the AARP, landline phone bills increased some 31% between 2011 and 2021.
According to the AARP, landline phone bills increased some 31% between 2011 and 2021. Quino Al/ Unsplash
Traditional landline phone services have been losing support and investment for years. The technology, reliant on underground copper cable, is seemingly being phased out. A three-year-old order by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) may speed up the process and drive up prices for those who want to keep their landline service.

James Graham, founder and CEO of Community Phone, a Massachusetts-based phone company, said these changes will mostly affect people over the age of 65 and small business owners.

Since the mid-'90s and until recently, communications companies have been required to provide landline phone services unbundled from other services. The lines would be sold at a rate regulated by the federal government. However, these companies were able to convince the FCC in 2019 that its rules were too burdensome and interfered with the transition to more modern communications technology, such as far cheaper and more durable fiber optic cable.

As a result, the FCC issued Order 10-72A1, ending the requirement to provide the landline services. The requirement officially ended on August 2, 2022. This was not to be the day all copper landline services would end but the day the phasing out of these services would be allowed to speed up.

Graham believes this will lead to higher phone bills for some and disruptions in service for others. He said his customers are already feeling the effects. “We have a couple thousand customers in Texas, and they get a letter from their cable company saying ‘Hey, we’re turning it off in 30 days,’” Graham said. “That’s on the heels of raising rates for the landline bill over the past many years.”

"It’s interesting to see [landlines] solve a real need for a lot of Americans.” – James Graham, Community Phone

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The FCC order has to do with the economics of running copper cable underground to all homes as opposed to just running fiber, according to Graham. “The big companies don’t want to have to do that,” Graham said. “They don’t want to pay. It’s more expensive to maintain.”

He said companies have continued to raise their rates for landline services, hoping people will ditch them. “Many Texans see their landline bills go up and up and up and up often into the hundreds of dollars,” Graham said. “We’ve seen bills even as high as $700 a month because these companies are just hoping that folks will leave by raising their rates.”

Graham and his company estimate there are more than 100,000 people who are over 65 years old and rely on landlines in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Another 100,000 homes in the area don’t have reliable internet, he said. This makes the alternative of internet-based phone services a not-so-viable option.

The alternative being pushed by big providers is the internet voice over IP-based option. There are some strings attached, Graham said. “It requires that you have an internet connection,” he said. “If someone starts streaming Netflix or the internet is spotty, the phone service will drop. It doesn’t work during power outages.”

Landlines offer consistent quality and reliability, Graham said, something the alternative doesn’t provide. That’s one of the reasons he started his company.

Community Phone sends out hardware to customers that provides them the benefits of a landline without having a landline. The hardware resembles a wireless internet router that plugs into a power outlet on the wall. Instead of hooking up a landline to the telephone jack, a customer plugs it into the Community Phone hardware. It comes equipped with a back-up battery pack and a SIM card that relies on cell towers in the area. So, you can use it without internet or when the power’s out.

Some might wonder why anyone would need a landline. “How about you just get a cellphone?” Graham said. “That’s a fine argument for 80% of people.”

But for small business owners, people over 65, people with Parkinson's disease who can’t use a smartphone, or people who just want a back-up phone, the landline has a lot to offer, he said.

“It does solve this unique set of problems that the smartphone doesn’t address in terms of the accessibility and the simplicity,” he said. “We might think in the mainstream that no one’s using landlines anymore or they’re totally obsolete. It’s interesting to see they solve a real need for a lot of Americans, just maybe more vulnerable groups.”

Some businesses, even big franchises, prefer landlines, Graham said. “For example, we provide service to more than 100 Starbucks locations. We’re also in KFC, and Dunkin' Donuts and 7-Eleven. These are very successful franchises, right? So, what’s going on there?"

For starters, a landline phone is often easier to use in a busy business, he said.

“This desire for a voice identity to a location is a different desire than a voice identity to an individual human,” Graham said. “So with business we see they want the location to have a phone number. You want to be able to call the location. Smartphones don’t do a great job of solving that.”

For the most part, Dallas has already ditched the landline, according to Advocate Magazine. Moving company HireAHelper put together a report on landline use based on U.S. Census data from 2009 to 2018. Dallas, one of 24 metro areas included in the report, had the lowest percentage of landline use. Only 16% of Dallas homes have landlines, according to the report. Most households with people over 55, however, have landlines.

Nationally, only 2.3% of homes have a landline and no cell phone service, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, more than 10% of those homes belong to people 65 or older. For them, switching to a new kind of phone service could be an obstacle.

“To a small group in particular who really relies on it as a primary source of communication," Graham said, "it is just a total disruptor and source of fear and stress that cannot really be overstated.”
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn

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