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4 in 10 US Homes Are Cellphone-Only As NY's Telecomm System Declines

WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

A coalition of consumer groups, organized labor and elected officials says New York state’s telecommunication system is in decline, while a new government survey says American households are increasingly disconnecting their landline telephones.  

The coalition includes groups like the AARP, Common Cause, the Working Families Party, several unions and dozens of elected leaders from around the state. It has filed a petition with the Public Service Commission seeking a "complete and public" review of the state's telecommunication system.

In a statement announcing its petition, the coalition says landline telephone service has deteriorated and rates have gone up, while many upstate and rural communities are still without broadband service.

AARP spokesman Eric Kriss argues that telephone communication is a basic neccesity, especially for older people. "Although there are cellphone companies marketing at the local level for local services, wireless is not yet and may never be a viable substitute for traditional local telephone service for most users, largely due to poor service quality and affordability.  AARP believes the PSC should move forward with this case to give the public a solid indication of where we stand in New York on insuring that all consumers have affordable, reliable, and high quality access to essential telecommunications service sin their residences, regardless of where they live"

The coalition hopes a state review of the telecommunications system would indicate whether telephone service rates are fair and whether sufficient competition exists.

Verizon spokesman John Bonomo says the petition offered by the coalition carries a combination of misleading and unsupported allegations, laden with faulty analyses and counterproductive public policy recommendations.  "The Public Service Commission has already announced that its conducting a comprehensive review of the communications industry in New York and of the regulatory framwork that governs the telecom industry. So any seperate examination of the claims in isolation would really be a waste of the agency's resources."

Verizon believes the coalitions’ opinions should be treated as are comments the PSC could evaluate in a broader context of its own research and the views of other interested parties.

Calls to the PSC for comment were not returned in time for broadcast.

Meanwhile, the survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 4 out of 10 homes have ditched their landlines and use only cellphones. That’s twice the rate from just five years ago, although the pace seems to have slowed down in recent years.

Experts believe the data may be skewed because former landlines connected as part of an Internet and cable TV package are still categorized as "landlines".

Lead researcher Stephen Blumberg is an associate director for science at the National Center for Health Statistics.   "In our survey, people who have voice over ip telephones, internet-based telephone lines, are still considered to have land lines. The home phone that used to be connected to an old copper line is now connected through the internet, they still think of it as a phone that's connected to the wall in their home and it's fixed at their address and therefore is a landline. So we don't try to make a distinction between those two. When we're talking about someone being wireless only, we're talking about somebody who's got a cellphone but does not have either plain old telephone service or internet phone in their home."

The survey found that 9 percent of U.S. homes have only landlines, about 48 percent of homes have landlines and cellphones. And about 3 percent of homes have neither. Blumberg adds  "we find that among households that have both a cellphone and a landline, about a third of them are wirelesss mostly. About a third of them don't use that landline much at all. So if you combine them with the 2 out of every 5 American homes that have only wireless telephone service, we find that only half of American households today are using a cellphone for all or nearly all of their calls."

No timeline has been established to predict when Americans will completely abandon landlines. Blumberg isn't sure there will ever be a "mass exodus" - he has examined European data  - in countries like Finland and the Czech Republic more than 80 per cent of households are wireless only.  "Will we ever get there here in the United States? I suspect that if we were to get there it will take at least a generation. We see that younger people are more likely to be wireless-only than older people."

In case you're wondering why the CDC studies cell phones - here's bonus audio with Stephen Blumberg:


Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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