The need for a landline in a cellphone world

By Tara Siegel Bernard / New York Times News Service

Published Jan 26, 2014 at 12:01AM

As I was hooking up a new phone in my living room, the kind where you plug a jack into the wall, I wondered why I was holding onto what had largely become a relic. It rarely rings, and even when it does, it’s usually the dentist or a robocaller.

Could my family do without it, much like the 38.2 percent of households that the government estimates use wireless phones alone? How reliable is wireless 911 now? And is there any big difference between the landline services offered by traditional carriers and by cable companies?

These are all questions I had only vague answers to, so I wanted to investigate whether the $900 or so annually we spent on a traditional landline was justified.

In addition to the better reception traditional phones often provide, many households also keep them for emergencies and 911. When you dial 911 from a landline, the dispatcher can generally see your address right away. Assuming you have decent reception, how many seconds might you lose when you call 911 from a cellphone?

These types of questions are being raised as part of a broader discussion between the Federal Communications Commission, Congress and the public safety and telecommunications industries, which are exploring whether more should be done to pinpoint a mobile caller’s location. This has become even more challenging now that more people call 911 from deep inside four walls, often made of thick stone or concrete, and not under an open sky or in a car.

A report in August from a California group of emergency professionals thrust the issue into the spotlight: Its data suggested that an increasing number of mobile emergency calls were being delivered without the caller’s location in five California counties. While the mobile operators disputed the findings, the report caught the attention of regulators.

So before you cut the cord, or even change providers to save money, here are some factors to consider:

911

Any subscriber to cable television has surely been bombarded with pitches to sign up for “triple play” services, which include cable television, Internet and phone service. The phone service is generally delivered using a technology called voice over Internet protocol (known as VoIP). When households subscribe to that type of phone service, they typically must register their residential address with the company, which is used when 911 is called.

Most providers try to verify the address, said Trey Forgety, director of government affairs for the National Emergency Number Association, a trade group.

Time Warner, for instance, says it verifies each address down to the apartment number — or the latitude and longitude, if you live on a farm, for instance — and registers it in a database. So when you call 911, the operator should immediately know your address and phone number. The same goes for callers with traditional landlines.

Contrast that with a wireless phone: When someone dials 911, the call goes to an emergency call center associated with the cell tower the phone is using. The dispatcher receives the phone number and the address of the cell tower and can probably tell the broad direction from which the call is coming. But it could take another 20 to 25 seconds for the dispatcher to receive a second batch of data with the specific location (which comes as longitude and latitude coordinates). And there is always a bit of “fuzziness” associated with your exact location, which Forgety described as less a specific spot than a fuzzy circle. And that information isn’t always available.

“There can be problems if you are deep inside a building where the signals don’t penetrate well,” said Forgety. “Or you can be in an urban canyon. GPS doesn’t work that well with lots of tall buildings around.”

The FCC established rules for emergency services in 2001, but those were largely based on using phones outdoors. “I think people have a false sense of security when they dial 911” from a mobile phone, said Danita Crombach, communications manager at the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office and president of the California chapter of the National Emergency Number Association, which issued the report suggesting that mobile callers’ location information was declining. She said many callers did not realize they could not always be located if they could not describe their location.

With companies like Vonage, which also provide phone services using the Internet, it is up to the user to register an address that will be used when dialing 911 from a landline. If you move and take your equipment with you, you will need to register your new address. If the power or Internet service goes down, calls can be forwarded to another number. Vonage does not work with home alarm or medical alert systems. Skype’s website says its service cannot be used for emergency calls. Power issues

Phone services that are largely delivered using Internet technology over fiber-optic lines require commercial power to operate. Landlines, however, use the old copper wire system of circuits and switches, which are generally self-powered but not always impervious to flooding. When commercial power fails, a phone delivered over fiber dies unless a backup battery is in place. Even then, you need to be using a corded phone because cordless ones require power. Alarm systems and medical devices connected to the phone may also go dark.

The companies charge an additional fee for the batteries. They generally provide up to eight hours of standby time and four hours of talk time — but that wouldn’t get you very far in a storm like Hurricane Sandy.

Verizon charges $29.99, and it said it expected to release a more robust battery in the months ahead.

Cox charges $24.99 for a battery for its phone modem (plus $9.50 for shipping if ordered over the phone); Comcast charges $35 (plus $5.95 shipping, though shipping is not available in Virginia and West Virginia); at Time Warner, a battery typically costs $20 to $30.

“It may not sound like a lot, but it seems wrong to me that something that used to be free and is so integral to the ability to make a 911 call if the power is out now costs extra,” said Delara Derakhshani, a lawyer at Consumers Union.

Consumer protections

Traditional phone services’ aging systems of copper lines are increasingly being replaced by the more nimble Internet-based systems, like Verizon’s FiOS and AT&T’s U-verse. But wireless services and those based on the Internet do not necessarily have the same regulations and consumer protections as traditional lines. The FCC is looking at how to approach this because it has limited authority over the Internet; telephone service delivered over copper lines was regulated as a public utility, which comes with several consumer rights, experts say.

“Generally, you have a bunch of consumer protection issues,” said Harold Feld, a senior vice president at Public Knowledge, a public interest group. “If you are a month late on your traditional phone bill, or even two months, they can’t cut service off because it’s a public utility. There are truth- in-billing rules on how the phone company can bill you and break it down on the bill,” he said. “Those rules don’t necessarily apply to all parts of your cellphone service, like your data plan, and they don’t apply to Internet protocol services.”

There are also potential issues of interconnection, he said. Regulations require telephone operators to accept one another’s traffic and interconnect their lines. Those rules do not apply to pure Internet-based providers. So, he said, unless new rules are put into place — something the FCC is looking at — you could have a situation similar to the one that played out in the cable television world last summer.

When Time Warner could not reach a deal on certain fees with CBS, it blacked out the station for a month in some markets. (The FCC, however, has said it thinks it has the authority to require interconnection and is looking at how best to require Internet-based providers to comply.)

“If Time Warner and Verizon had a period of dispute, and people on different services couldn’t call each other, that is not just annoying,” Feld said. “That is a disaster.”

As for me, I’m sticking with my landline (albeit at a new negotiated rate). At least for now.