Landline Users Remain Proudly ‘Old-Fashioned’ in the Digital Age

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When millions of AT&T customers across the country briefly lost their cellphone service last month, Francella Jackson, 61, of Fairview Heights, Ill., said she picked up her well-worn Southwestern Bell push-button landline phone and called her friends “just so we could laugh at the people who could not use their phones.”

“Why, isn’t it great that we can talk and have a great conversation?” she recalled saying. “We had a good laugh.”

Derek Shaw, 68, of York, Pa., said he has an Android mobile phone, but prefers talking on his black cordless landline at home. The sound quality is better, he said, and the phone is easier to hold during long conversations. Mr. Shaw said that he also likes talking to people face to face rather than on Zoom and never got rid of his vinyl record collection when CDs got hot in the 1990s.

“I’ve never even thought about giving up my landline,” he said. “I’ll go kicking and screaming when I have to.”

To many, landline phones have come to seem as essential as steamships and telegrams in the smartphone era. But to those who still use them, they offer distinct advantages. Prompted by the AT&T outage on Feb. 22 and a push by AT&T to phase out traditional landlines in California, those who have them are speaking out in defense of their old phones.

To them, the landline is a lifeline during power outages, a welcome throwback to the era before doomscrolling and push alerts, and a more comfortable, better-sounding alternative to tinny, thin smartphones.

“I love my landline,” said Ms. Jackson, who has had hers since the 1980s. “People call me old-fashioned, but I’ll be old-fashioned.”

She has a cellphone but no internet at home, she said. She likes that she still remembers her friends’ phone numbers and never has a dropped call. “I’m a little nostalgic,” Ms. Jackson said. “With technology, although I embrace it, there are some things I like to hold on to.”

Some younger people also see upsides to landlines. Cory Sechrest, 32, of Chicago, said he and his girlfriend got a pink landline phone to use just in case the power goes out. He said he doesn’t know anyone else his age who has one.

When friends visit, “They take a pause, look at it and say, ‘What’s that?’” he said. “It gets a few chuckles.”

Landlines can feel like a portal to the pre-internet era. Many Americans grew up with the classic rotary phone mounted on the kitchen wall that the whole family had to share, offering reliability but no privacy. Some got the burger phone in their teenage bedroom after begging their parents for weeks. Some coveted the football phone that came free with a subscription to Sports Illustrated.

The writer Charli Penn wrote in Apartment Therapy that, as a millennial, she got a landline phone because it gives her a break from her cellphone, is easier for her father to use and takes her back in time.

“If plaid mini skirts, ivy garland, and thick-soled combat boots can enjoy a welcome comeback, why can’t I cozy up to an hourslong conversation using my cordless house phone, just like I did back in my teen years and early 20s?” Ms. Penn wrote.

Some also like landline phones for aesthetic reasons. Mark Treutelaar, the co-owner, with his wife, Galina, of the Old Phone Shop, which sells and repairs landline phones in Franklin, Wis., said he has noticed an uptick in sales of brightly colored, rotary-dial wall and desk phones from the 1960s and ’70s.

“We are selling more phones recently than ever before,” Mr. Treutelaar said. “People like them just because they remember them from when they were younger and, even if they don’t have a landline, they are buying them as just decoration or are hooking them to cellphones through Bluetooth.”

Others rely on landlines in rural areas with spotty cellphone coverage. Still, landline users are a distinct minority in the United States.

About 73 percent of American adults lived in a household with no landline but at least one cellphone in 2022, according to the most recent data collected by the federal government. Age, not surprisingly, was a key factor in phone use. Nearly 90 percent of Americans ages 25 to 29 reported that they used only cellphones, compared to less than half of Americans over 65.

Citing the plummeting popularity of landlines, AT&T asked California regulators last year to be relieved of its obligation to maintain its traditional copper-wire phone network, the kind that connected American households for most of the last century.

AT&T said the number of copper landlines, known as plain old telephone service, or POTS, that it provides in California fell by 89 percent from 2000 to 2021. Customers generally pay about $34.50 a month for that service, according to the California Public Advocates Office. But even most landline users rely primarily on their cellphones, according to AT&T.

“Like Blockbuster rentals and Kodak film, POTS has fallen from technological primacy to effective obsolescence in the course of a generation,” AT&T wrote in its application to the California Public Utilities Commission.

AT&T described the proposal as part of a multiyear effort to eventually move landline customers to mobile phones or to fiber optic cables that carry internet and landline phone service. It says 20 other states have already allowed it to make that transition.

“No customer will be left without voice or 911 service,” Susan Johnson, executive vice president of wireline transformation for AT&T, said in a statement. “For customers who do not have alternative options available yet, we will continue to provide their existing voice service as long as is needed.”

Still, the proposal has unleashed a fierce blowback, with hundreds of landline users submitting public comments urging California to reject it. Many say the copper wire system, because it is generally self-powered, is the most reliable way to reach emergency services if the power fails during a flood, wildfire or storm. AT&T says fiber cables are more resilient and easier to repair, although a fiber optic phone will die without a backup battery in place.

“If we have health issues, especially, it’s the most important thing to be able to use our rotary phone,” said Francesca Ciancutti, who lives in Mendocino County, Calif. “It’s absolutely crucial. And all our neighbors feel the same way.”

It’s a concern that has led many people around the country to hold on to their landlines.

Katie Lanza, 37, of Fort Worth, said she had once been waiting for an insurance replacement for her cellphone, which had been chewed by her dog, when she got sick in the middle of the night. With no way to call for help, she found herself knocking on a neighbor’s door at 2 a.m. That was about 14 years ago, she said, and she’s had a landline ever since.

“It’s always been my fear that if something happened to my cellphone, I wouldn’t be able to call anybody,” Ms. Lanza said.

Ms. Jackson said she worries about cyberattacks disrupting her cellphone service. But mostly, she said, her landline is just a nicer way to talk to people after work.

“I just like to chill and remember things how they were,” she said. “It’s relaxing for me to pick up and have a long conversation with my friends on my landline phone.”

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