Growing up I experienced a few building-wide electrical blackouts, but the telephone always worked because it was powered by the phone company over copper wire. It was well known around New York that a landline was more likely to remain working than any phone powered through a local circuit-breaker. This was considered a personal safety issue.
Now, of course, much has changed, as phone companies are switching to unpowered fiber-optic cable. I’m not sure whether that will happen soon in New York, which has too much ancient infrastructure to replace quickly. And Verizon apparently has no economic incentive to lay fiber-optic cable to our building, which is the only privately owned one in an large area dominated by a huge organization. The huge organization arranges many matters of infrastructure for its buildings, so our building may remain served by old copper phone wire for a long time to come.
But I’ve been thinking about the reasons for keeping a landline even so. Briefly, the arguments against are expense and vulnerability to abuse, while there are still three or four good reasons to keep a landline, apart from the copper-wire issue:
So that our elderly relative next door can reach us instantly to ask for help, if we’re home. No need to think about whether the power is on or the cell phone is charged. If we’re home, barring occasional phone glitches, we can be reached on the landline.
So that our building’s buzzer system works. Our building replaced its intercom with a system that connects the front door microphone and speaker to a local phone number. Believe it or not, New York State law requires an intercom and buzzer system between the building entrance and each apartment in most “multiple-dwelling” buildings. (I’ve written about this elsewhere.) We can’t simply give the system a cellphone number to call on, since a cellphone doesn’t stay in the apartment for the other occupants to use when the cellphone’s owner is out.
A generalization of points 1 and 2 above is that the landline connects the apartment, whereas a cellphone connects only the individual. Anyone in the apartment can answer a landline call, and people can call it to reach anyone — any of us who live here and also anyone who just happens to be in the apartment. Within reason, any number of people can take part in a landline conversation, hardware permitting. Cell phones do not begin to meet this level of functionality, even if you subscribe to shared-line accounts.
A minor reason for keeping landlines is that our family has three landline numbers, one of which has been ours since the 1970s. They’re all in New York’s original 212 area code, which is now hard to get for a new phone account. This point probably means nothing to the city’s new arrivals, but the 212 area code is still a matter of hometown identity for long-time residents of New York County. We may some day port one or more of the landline numbers to cell phones, but then we will have to give up a cell-phone number we’ve also had for the long term. As I say, this is a minor matter, though.
The problems with keeping a landline are only two, it seems to me.
They’re expensive and starting to be redundant with cellphones, though I think not as much as people may believe.
We now get almost as many annoying calls from survey and automated telemarketers as from human beings who we want to hear from. For some years we’ve gotten one or two of these every weekday. We always have a physical voicemail system connected for call screening, but these telephonic invasions are disruptive, nonetheless, since we are vigilant about listening for phone calls from our elderly relative next door. I’ve written about these elsewhere, but I’ll bet my experiences are no different from anyone else’s.
Private phone numbers
Of my family’s three landlines, one has always been registered with the phone company as a “private number”. That meant that it was not published in the White Pages (a thick book on thin paper listing personal and company phone numbers that used to come out every year), and for practical purposes you were never called on it except by people you knew.
Today that number, which I believe has never been given out to any companies of any kind, remains what I would call truly private. As far as I know it is never called by rogue telemarketers or surveyors, nor does it appear on line in any recognizable form other than as a random 212 number without any associated name or address. Only a few people know the number and if the phone rings it will be one of them, or else a wrong number with a person on the other end.
That’s how the phone is supposed to be — as private or as public as you want it to be. There are ways to use technology to model old-fashioned privacy, but so far I don’t see them in widespread use for the phone.