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Phone companies want to eliminate traditional landlines. What's at stake and who loses?

Charlene Hopey has seen firsthand why having a traditional phone landline at her house is beneficial.

Hopey, who lives in the Santa Monica Mountains region, has lived through California wildfires and earthquakes. She had friends who couldn't make or receive a call during the disasters – those who had ditched their landlines for cellphones and didn’t have good cell service, and friends who still had landlines but had only cordless phones that were rendered useless when they lost electricity.

“People could not communicate in an emergency,” said Hopey, 72, who has a cellphone but doesn’t like to use it.

Hopey is among a dwindling number of consumers who choose to still have a traditional landline using copper wires. But they may eventually not have that choice.

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The California Public Utilities Commission is considering an application by AT&T to waive its responsibilities to be what’s called “Carrier of Last Resort,” meaning the utility has to offer the copper-wire landline service.

The utility said in filings with the commission that the technology for the traditional landlines is old and demand is low. The utility and many of its peers have been petitioning state utility commissions and state legislators, asking to be relieved of the task of maintaining and offering the traditional landline service.

Eliminating landlines concerns senior citizens

Consumer advocates say that’s not only a bad idea, but it also leaves the country’s most vulnerable without a basic utility.

There is concern especially for senior citizens who aren’t interested in eliminating their landlines for cellphones and for consumers in rural areas that may not have good cell service, said Tim Morstad, government affairs director of livable communities for AARP.

“Traditional landlines have provided reliable service for over a century, and while many consumers have adopted new technologies, not all have access to affordable alternatives to landlines,” Morstad said.

“In some instances, phone companies are seeking to both eliminate the obligation to provide landline service and no longer provide discounts to income-qualified customers on their phone bill. This would be a devastating one-two punch for these customers.”

Many senior citizens are adept at new technology, including cellphones, but they just prefer the landline – and should have access to one that's also affordable, said Susan Weinstock, CEO of the Consumer Federation of America.

Weinstock’s 91-year-old mother has a cellphone and uses a computer.

“She's pretty darn good, but when I call her on the cellphone, she always says to me, 'Call me on the landline,' ” Weinstock said. Her mother, who wears a hearing aid, can hear better on the landline.

“There’s lots of concerns, particularly for older people, about how they will connect to people without having that landline.”

Alternatives to landlines, such as cellphones or Voice Over Internet Protocol (voIP) phones, cost more than the traditional basic phone service and require good cell or internet service and electricity, she said.

On Thursday, the reliability of traditional landlines became clear when tens of thousands of AT&T cellular service users woke up to outages, which remained throughout the day. Some emergency service providers suggested residents find a landline to make emergency calls or someone with a working phone.

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Landlines are 'antiquated,' AT&T says

In its California filing in March 2023, AT&T said it was investing in “high-capacity, state-of-the-art broadband technologies – both wired and wireless.”

But AT&T asked to be relieved of its Carrier of Last Resort obligation, “which effectively mandates AT&T California to maintain a copper-based network through its service territory.”

The company said its obligation requires it, but not major competitors, to “wastefully operate and maintain two duplicative networks; one, an antiquated narrowband network with an ever-dwindling base of subscribers, and the other, a forward-looking, fiber and wireless broadband network.”

A series of public hearings began this month at the California Public Utilities Commission on the matter. The commission also is taking public comments. Hopey, the landline user, is among 3,500 who have filed public comments – most of them opposing the waiver – so far.

“No customer is being left without service,” an AT&T spokesman said in a statement provided to USA TODAY regarding the waiver request in California and “legislative reform” in 20 other states, which eliminated the utility’s requirement for traditional landline service.

“Millions of people have long ago chosen modern, high-speed internet and wireless phones over outdated telephones,'' AT&T said. "We’re working with consumers who use traditional copper-based phone service to upgrade to newer technologies from us or other providers, so everyone will still be able to make their most important life connections.”

Fewer people have landlines

The number of households nationwide with landlines is dwindling.

Since 2007, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey has tracked estimates of how many U.S. households have wireless services only.

The report, based on data through the second half of 2022, estimates 72.6% of adults and 81.9% of children live in homes with only wireless phone services.

That data also tracks with estimates from research firm Gartner, which estimates that in 2024, about 80% of all individual voice connections are through mobile phones and 20% are through landlines.  That 20% represents about 88 million lines nationwide, said Lisa Pierce, Gartner research vice president.

The phone utilities are struggling with equipment that is no longer being made and a shrinking number of employees who are qualified to service the equipment because they are either retiring or were laid off during downsizing, Pierce said.

The biggest losers, though, will be consumers, who want or need to keep that copper-line landline, she said. Many services, such as home-alarm systems, rely on the copper-line landline, she said. And some businesses have equipment such as elevators and call boxes that depend on landline service, Pierce said.

But even if phone companies get the approval to eliminate landlines, they won’t disappear overnight, Pierce said.

“The best thing for anyone to do is go look for alternatives,” so they’re not surprised when they don’t have access to the landline, she said.

Alternatives to landlines are costly

If California allows the waiver for AT&T, it becomes a slippery slope for other states, said Regina Costa, telecommunications policy director for The Utility Reform Network (TURN) in California and chair of the telecommunications committee for the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates.

“I think the nation is watching California very closely,” Costa said. “Is there a replacement that will guarantee service to all customers and guarantee reliable service?”

That service needs to be available to all customers at a reasonable cost, Costa said.

“Customers really get squeezed with service offerings and price increases” for alternatives, she said.

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Phone access during power outages is important

Having reliable access to 911 in an emergency –and especially when there is a power outage – also is imperative, said Brian Fontes, CEO of NENA: The 911 Association (National Emergency Number Association).

If phone utilities are going to eliminate copper-wire landlines, they need to have reliable power backups for alternative methods so those without cell service can make emergency calls, or they must provide other phone alternatives, he said.

“I don’t want the consumer to all of the sudden find themselves stranded or isolated or incapable of communicating,” Fontes said. “Everybody should have access to 911.”

Hopey, the California landline user, says her landline is so important that she and her husband pay for both a traditional copper-wire landline and a fiber-optic line for his business through their carrier, Fios. She worries that if AT&T is allowed to drop landline service, other carriers will follow.

If AT&T and other companies that have bought up the former Bell Telephone Companies are allowed to eliminate copper-wire landlines, says Tommy Steed, chairman of the Association of BellTel Retirees, that’s a violation of the decree to break up the utility in 1982.

There was a promise to provide landline service, Steed said, and taking that away without offering consumers a cost-effective alternative forces consumers to the phone company’s cell services. His nonprofit has 134,000 current employees and retirees of former Bell Telephone companies.

Said Steed, “Landlines are lifelines.”

Betty Lin-Fisher is a consumer reporter for USA TODAY. Reach her at blinfisher@USATODAY.com or follow her on X, Facebook or Instagram @blinfisher. Sign up for our free The Daily Money newsletter, which will include consumer news on Fridays, here.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: AT&T, phone companies want to ditch landlines. What's at stake?