In Defense of the Landline Telephone
Once among the most ubiquitous pieces of technology on Earth, old school, wired-and-jacked telephones are disappearing. In 2019, only about 31% of American households still had a landline, where 97% of U.S. adults own a cell phone. But are we being a little hasty here?
In some ways, the superiority of smart phones is obvious—you can put them in your pocket, use them to play World of Tanks, and whip ‘em out to take pictures of your lunch. But when it comes to the basic function of a telephone—talking to other people—landlines still offer advantages over cell phones, and for some people, those advantages are huge.
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The sound quality was actually better until recently
If I were writing this article a decade ago, I’d tell you that landlines are better than cell phones because they work even when the power goes out, and, because they run on a dedicated system that is only designed to carry voices, nothing interrupts calls—plus the sound quality is far superior to cell phones. Sadly though, the copper wires that once carried all our dumb conversations have been largely replaced with fiber optic cables, so almost no one in the U.S. enjoys the sonic clarity and self-powering coolness that POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) once provided. Cell service may be better than it used to be, but strictly in terms of talking to your pals, it’s still not nearly as good as phones were in the 1950s.
They’re now cooler than smartphones
Old phones are inherently interesting and becoming rare enough to be outré. Making calls on an avocado-colored princess phone with a curly cord and dialer is just stylish. It says, “I have better things to do than stare at a black rectangle all day.” So if you’re a twee hipster, you gotta get one. But landline phones are most valuable to people who likely have no idea what “twee hipster” means.
Landlines are the perfect solution for grandmas and baristas
“There were big phone companies taking advantages of our grandmas, and it was like enough is enough,” says James Graham, the CEO of Community Phone, a company dedicated to preserving landline phones for seniors. “People get a letter from their phone company that says ‘you need to switch to VOIP and get a new phone with us.’ They’ve had that number forever, and it’s like, ‘What do you do?’ That’s the problem we solve as a company,”
Graham, in his mid 20s, is an unlikely proponent of old phones, but the tech entrepreneur points out that for memory care patients, people with dementia, and people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, an iPhone is often not an option, where an old school landline is a familiar and easy way to keep in contact with loved ones.
Another place where the landline shines is for small businesses. Employees lose or steal cell phones, and, depending on the business, knowing the location of your work phone at all times can be vital. “It’s super interesting to see that new businesses are getting it,” Graham said. “There is an intrinsic value in the simplicity of a work phone. If you’re a barista and need to answer the phone, it’s always there every time.”
There are even more advantages
If you aren’t a senior or a business owner, there are still a ton of advantages to landline phones. Off the top of my head:
You won’t ever lose it.
The screen never cracks.
You won’t have to buy a new one every two years.
You will never need to charge it.
No one will steal it.
You will not crash your car because you are using a landline phone.
They’re cheaper: The average landline bill is around $42 a month, compared to $127 a month.
You can buy an old phone on eBay for like $30. An iPhone costs around a grand.
You will not be contributing to the downfall of human civilization.
Let me expand on that last point.
Smart phones may be leading to the death of everything good in our society
Americans are spending an average of seven hours and four minutes looking at a screen every day, and young people spend more time scrolling than older people. As U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. put it, phones are such an “insistent part of daily life that a visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.” All this happened in the last decade.
No one has any idea what this rapid and nearly universal change in our behaviors will do to us, but we might be starting to see signs. Since 2011, rates of depression and suicide among teenagers have skyrocketed. We can’t say for sure why, but it correlates pretty closely to the rise in popularity of smart phones.
I spend too much time looking at my phone. You do too. Everyone does. This is by design. A massive, worldwide experiment in human consciousness is being conducted right now, and no one knows how it will end. But you don’t have to do it.
If you switch to a landline, I promise you will not grab it the moment you wake up, look at it before you got to sleep, and check it a thousand times between. You’ll just use it to talk to people. That’s all it’s for and all it does.
“Because we’re all just obsessed with smart phones, we stopped looking around, and noticing how all these other things haven’t really changed since the 60s,” Graham said. “We’re all just so obsessed with looking at our black slate that we never really look outwards.”
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