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May 03, 2007

There Won’t Be Any Landlines in 2013

There is a The Wall Street Journal story today about T-Mobile’s plan for a national roll-out of Hotspot @ Home - its WiFi enabled cellphone service.  Currently, according to The Journal, phones from Nokia and Samsung can be used with both traditional cellular towers and some WiFi hotspots; the phones can even roam between the two technologies so you don’t lose the call you’re on when your phones switches from one type of connection to another.  The hotspots can be either those that T-Mobile runs including all the ones they have in Starbucks or your home WiFi network.

This rollout and copycats will doom landlines – the copper line between your house and the local phone company is called a landline – to extinction by the end of 2012.  That’s my prediction, not that of the WSJ.  It is possible if DSL technology is improved that some copper will still be in use to provide broadband connectivity over which phone service’ll run but even this use of the copper is unlikely to go on for long.

The number of landlines nationwide is already declining– especially now that they’re not needed for dialup Internet access.  A story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution cites sites a census bureau study saying that the number of household with landline phones declined from 96.2% to 94.1% between 1998 and 2003 while the number with cellphones increased from 36.3% to 62.8%  during the same period.  It’s reasonable to think both trends have accelerated in the three years since the study.  In a regulatory filing in January of this year, Verizon said the Virginia now has more wireless subscribers than landlines.

Why do any of us still have landlines today?

For those who talk a lot, it’s cheaper to do that on a landline phone than on a mobile phone.  But it’s even cheaper to talk on a VoIP phone.  T-Mobile drives that point home.  Domestic calls you make at home over WiFi from your T-Mobile phone are “free” – part of the bundle of what you’re paying for. So cost will favor using your mobile phone at home.

For some it’s a question of quality.  Some houses block cellular coverage pretty well; some people (especially here in Vermont and other rural areas) live in places where cellular coverage isn’t good or is simply non-existent.  But that problem disappears if you are connecting to the hotspot in your own home.  Trust me, by 2012  we’ll all have wireless hotspots in our homes by one means or another.

With landlines one phone and one phone number typically serves the whole family.  Is that an advantage or a disadvantage? I think we’re getting used to having personal phones and personal numbers.  But, for those who care, switching technology is available today and will be dead simple to use by 2012 which makes an incoming call to a “family” number ring on any set of individual phones no matter what primary numbers those phones have.

We do tend to have landline phones all over our houses – except for those of us who use cordless phones.  Technology is also the answer to those who don’t want to figure out how to clip a cellphone to their pajamas or less.  Putting your cellphone in a docking station can extend its connectivity to all the traditional phones in the house.  So you can continue to use your internal wiring and existing handsets at home if that’s what you want to do.

The cellphone is also more capable than the traditional home phone.  Pictures, text messaging, address book, screen for caller ID.  I find myself making cellular calls from home because I call from the phone that has numbers stored in it.

By 2012 no more reason to use our landlines - so we won’t.

Usually old technologies have a long tail.   Mainframe computers are still around decades after people (including me) predicted their demise.  I predicted that all calls would be VoIP by 2010.  There’ll still be some POTs then (Plain Old Telephone Service) because not everyone will have broadband and clearly there’ll still be traditional cellular although that will be converting to VoIP rapidly.

But I don’t think the copper plant will last past 2012.  The problem is the cost of maintaining and operating it when it has very few subscribers.  Obviously a huge problem for at&t and Verizon.  And an important social issue as well.

See related post:  T-Mobile, Competition, and the Thirteenth Fairy.

Audio of an interview by Phil Leigh on this post is at http://www.insidedigitalmedia.com/downloads/wifiphone.mp3.

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