Suburbanology: Should I Keep My Landline Phone?

Despite problems with an aging copper phone line network, landlines provide an important connection to 911 services



Illustration by Claudine Hellmuth

THE HOME PHONE of my suburban childhood was big, clunky, had a rotary dial, and was bolted to a kitchen wall. Answering it allowed me to practice phone etiquette with all manner of adults: neighbors, my friends’ parents and my parents’ friends and co-workers. Most importantly, that home phone was an object of safety. I learned to dial 911 before I could recite the alphabet. I knew that if something bad happened, then I could dial those digits, police and firefighters would know I needed help, know where I lived, and rush to save me.

I cherished that assumption for decades, long after everybody who knew me dialed my cellphone and most calls to my home landline were nuisances—robocalls, marketers, scammers. I generally picked up my home phone just to dust it. But I’ve paid, year after year, to keep my home landline for one reason: In case of emergency, I might need to dial 911. With the simple faith of a child, I felt sure that a dial tone would always be there—until it wasn’t.

I’ve lost track of how often my home phone line has gone dead since late 2013, typically after rain. At least five times my phone service stayed out so many days that I’ve contacted AT&T, my carrier, to complain. Invariably, AT&T customer service representatives say they’ll ask Verizon, which controls the copper telephone wire in Montgomery County, to repair my line.

Honestly, I’ve had more reliable service in Third World countries using a satellite phone. Eventually, I started asking why my phone service was less reliable at my Bethesda home, just a few miles from the White House, than when I was hiking the Hindu Kush.

Consumer advocates in Maryland and elsewhere have accused Verizon and other carriers of intentionally failing to meet their legal obligation to adequately maintain the nation’s aging copper wire phone network in order to force customers to migrate to newer technologies that are less regulated and potentially more expensive. A Verizon spokesman said the company is meeting its legal obligations to maintain the copper phone lines under its control, but has found newer, fiber-based options more reliable.

“It is no secret to the investment community and the FCC that the companies operating the landline services want to abandon their copper-based services, which continue to provide generally reliable telephone service to millions of consumers,” according to a document that lawyers for the Maryland Office of People’s Counsel, an independent state agency, presented to the Legislature last year.

The document continues: “Lowell McAdam, the Chairman and CEO of Verizon Communications, the parent of Verizon Maryland, has stated that his vision is ‘we are going into the copper plant areas, and every place we have FiOS, we are going to kill the copper…that is a pot of gold.’ ”

As I write this column, the FCC is accepting public comments on proposed new rules that could impact phone service in my neighborhood and others nationwide.

“Essentially, the FCC—like the Sheriff coming round in the middle of the night—wants to know if nefarious activities are going on under the cover of darkness; in this case, if incumbent carriers are simply letting their aging copper facilities deteriorate to the point that it becomes ‘necessary’ to replace the copper with fiber,” according to an analysis that lawyers from the Washington, D.C.-based firm of Sheppard Mullin published on a firm blog.

Here’s why consumers should care how this shakes out:

Not all types of phone services are equal when it comes to reaching 911 operators reliably in emergencies. Phone technologies and the products offered to consumers are changing so fast that they are outstripping the ability of state and federal regulators to police them and protect consumers. The wide range of home phone offerings, some of them bundled with entertainment services, is confusing enough that some consumers are unwittingly giving up traditionally wired copper landlines—which are regulated by the state—for unregulated services.

I enjoy new technology as much as the next iPhone 6-toting Instagram fan. So I asked Montgomery County 911 Emergency Communications Center Deputy Director William Ferretti if it’s reasonable for me to cling to my old copper phone wires as a lifeline. His short answer: yes.

Copper phone lines—if properly maintained—remain the best option for calling 911 because they have fewer points of potential failure, Ferretti says. The copper network carries its own power, so phones wired to it typically keep working even if you lose electrical power. If you have a wired landline, emergency operators instantly know the address your distress call is coming from, even if you are unable to speak.

The newer fiber-based landlines are not available on every street of every neighborhood—far from it. So they don’t offer the kind of universal phone services that have been an accepted right in this country since passage of the Communications Act of 1934. The fiber network, unlike copper, is not self-powering. So if your fiber-based landline loses electricity, you’ll wish you had bought the battery backup packs that Verizon offers. One advantage of a fiber-based phone service, where available, is that the fiber cables are new and thus not deteriorating. And since fiber phone landlines are regulated like traditional copper service in Maryland, you have the option of complaining to the Maryland Public Service Commission if service is poor or your bill suddenly quadruples.

But not all fiber-based phone services are equal.  Rich Young, a Verizon spokesman, says that in areas of Bethesda where fiber is available, “residents have a choice” between a traditional style landline—only fiber, not copper—“or VoIP, also known as FiOS Digital Voice.” The traditional style landline, whether copper or fiber, is subject to state regulation in Maryland. VoIP, which operates across high-speed internet connections, is not. Still, the overwhelming number of Verizon customers today purchase VoIP phone services, typically bundled with FiOS TV and/or FiOS.

Advocates are most concerned about consumers in neighborhoods where the copper network is aging or has been damaged by weather, but Verizon is not installing new fiber-based landlines. That leaves customers choosing from an array of options that might not support their medical alert devices or serve as an ideal interface with 911.

In recent years, about 70 percent of calls to 911 in Montgomery County came from cellphones. But cellphones, which have the obvious advantage of portability, also have several points of potential failure in a disaster. Dangerous weather can knock out cell towers, and large numbers of callers dialing 911 simultaneously in an emergency can overwhelm the system. Currently, emergency operators only know the approximate location of a cellphone caller, Ferretti says. They might, for example, be able to see what block you are calling from, but not which house. If you call 911 from a high-rise apartment or office building, operators won’t know what floor you are on unless you are able to speak and tell them.

If the Maryland Public Service Commission allows our copper phone network to deteriorate past the point of no return, and other technologies advance to the point where the 911 operator knows precisely where I am if I dial from my cellphone, then I might voluntarily give up my old copper landline—but not yet.

I’m not a utilities regulator. I don’t want to be. Neither do I want to wade through FCC filings, as if I’m an $800-an-hour K Street telecommunications lawyer, to understand what’s going on with my home phone. I just want to pick up the phone and hear a dial tone. If I’m dialing 911, I want to know I will get through and that help will speed my way. That’s such a simple concept. Even a small child can understand. n

April Witt (aprilwitt@hotmail.com) is a former Washington Post writer who lives in Bethesda.

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