Thursday, May 15, 2008

Landline Use In Steep Decline

The use of landline telephone services has been steadily declining for years. As more and more people switch to wireless or net telephony, the impact on political polling is negligible.

For nearly three in 10 U.S. households, don't even bother trying to call them on a landline phone. They either only have a cell phone or seldom if ever take calls on their traditional phone.

The federal figures, released Wednesday, showed that reliance on cells is continuing to rise at the expense of wired telephones. In the second half of last year, 16 percent of households only had cell phones, while 13 percent also had landlines but got all or nearly all their calls on their cells.

The number of wireless-only households grew by 2 percentage points since the first half of last year. Underscoring the rapid growth, in early 2004 just percent had only cell phones.

Households with cell phones who rarely if ever use their landlines grew by 1 percentage point since the first half of last year.

The only thing keeping some families tethered to a traditional landline is the need for dial-up Internet access in areas where broadband is unavailable or unaffordable:

Such families often either have their landline hooked exclusively to a computer or rely so heavily on their cells that they ignore landline calls because they are probably from telephone solicitors, said Stephen Blumberg, senior scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and an author of the report.

This decline in revenue from landlines is typified by the predatory nature of some local telephone companies, who are doing whatever is necessary to continue to collect revenue from customers:

A widow rented a rotary dial telephone for 42 years, paying what her family calculates as thousands of dollars for a now outdated phone.

Ester Strogen, 82, of Canton, first leased two black rotary phones — the kind whose round dial is moved manually with your finger — in the 1960s. Back then, the technology was new and most people had to rent telephones as part of their basic phone service. It was pre-AT&T when the telephone business was monopolized by the company known as "Ma Bell."

Bell was disbanded in 1983 and split into seven smaller companies and AT&T was given the right to handle long-distance and telephone-leasing services. From 1985 to 1986, customers who leased telephones were given the option to continue leasing, buy them or opt out of their agreements.

Until two months ago, Strogen was still paying AT&T to use the phones — $29.10 every three months, the phone company says. Strogen's granddaughters, Melissa Howell and Barb Gordon, ended the arrangement when they discovered the bills.

"I'm outraged," Gordon said. "It made me so mad. It's ridiculous. If my own grandmother was doing it, how many other people are?"

The number of customers leasing phones dropped from 40 million nationwide to about 750,000 today, said John Skalko, spokesman for Murray Hill, N.J.-based Lucent Technologies, a spinoff of AT&T that manages the residential leasing service.

Polling impact

The CBS news article cited above makes a largely unproven assumption that the decline in landline use and the increase in cellular telephone-only households is having, or will have, an impact on organizations that poll or survey American households:

The trends have an important impact on polling organizations, which rely chiefly on calls to random landline phone numbers. Calling cell phone users can be more costly for pollsters, in part because federal law forbids unsolicited calls to cell phones made by computerized dialing systems used heavily by pollsters.

Studies have shown that so far, people who have only cell phones do not give significantly different answers to questions than those who use landlines. Pollsters, though, are under growing pressure to survey the growing number of cell phone users and some already do so.

There are plenty of indications that this is not a significant enough problem to distrust poll or survey results:

In particular, there is no evidence that the polling in the Democratic and Republican nomination contests is biased by the fact that most polls rely only on landline interviews. In the December national poll, support for no candidate in the landline sample changed by more than two points when the preferences of cell phone respondents were blended in. The same was true in the October national poll.

There is no doubt that Americans who rely solely on cell phones differ from the rest of the public in some key respects. However, in most cases these differences are the result of their demographic characteristics, particularly the fact they tend to be very young. Since adjustments for age are made in standard landline surveys, adding the cell-only component to the survey substantially increases the raw number of younger people surveyed, but does not alter the overall weight of younger respondents in the final estimates.

In most respects, the political attitudes and behaviors of younger people who are cell-only do not differ substantially from younger people surveys do reach on landlines, meaning that the overall results are virtually identical to those from the landline survey alone.

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