Can You Hear Me Now?

Morgan O'Rourke


February 13, 2013

Years and years ago I worked for a company that provided technical support for new cell phone users. This was well before cell phones were as widespread as they are today, and the market was still split between bulky analog brick phones and the newer digital models that were just starting to come out. Like just about anyone who has ever worked in customer support, my day often felt like a test to see how much frustration I could endure.

Most of the time it seemed like my “tech support” consisted of telling people that, unlike a landline phone, they actually needed to press send to make a call or that they needed to charge their cell phone’s battery before using it (assuming they even figured out that they needed to attach the battery in the first place). Explaining how to work voicemail was like teaching a toddler how to pilot a 747. I know that there is always going to be a learning curve with new technology, but that didn’t mean I didn’t want to repeatedly bash my head into the nearest hard surface at the end of each workday.

What probably contributed to my disdain for some of these callers was that, despite being a trained cell phone expert, I still didn’t own one myself. To me, they seemed like an unnecessary luxury, a feeling that was only magnified by these vapid, pretentious users who seemed to only make inane calls that always began, “You’ll never guess where I’m calling from...”

Yeah, I was an angry young man.

Cut to 20 years later and cell phones are ubiquitous. It has even evolved to the point that we rarely use them for actual phone calls anymore, preferring to communicate via text, email or tweet. These days if someone actually has the audacity to call me I’m usually skeptical of their motives and more than likely will just let it go to voicemail. Then I’ll probably just text them back. Who has the time for a live conversation anyway? What am I, your therapist?

And now, wireless is replacing landlines entirely. Personally, I haven’t had a landline in my home for years, and according to the Centers for Disease Control, I’m not alone. More than half of U.S. households either don’t have or don’t use a landline.

Not surprisingly, the younger demographic is more likely to be wireless-only. Almost half of 18- to 24-year-olds and 60% of 25- to 29-year-olds eschew landlines, while on the other end of the age spectrum only a quarter of 45- to 64-year-olds and 10% of those 65 or older have similarly cut the cord. This suggests that the wireless-only trend will continue as the population ages—which could have interesting repercussions.

First, as the CDC points out, many health surveys, political polls and other research studies are conducted using telephone surveys that up until recently did not include wireless phone numbers. This could mean that by excluding a certain part of the population, in what is known as coverage bias, the data could be skewed in a way that would make it unreliable. For instance, the CDC has found that almost twice as many wireless-only adults have had five or more alcoholic drinks in a day at least once in the past year (30.5%) than those living in landline households (17.5%), and wireless-only adults (27.9%) are more likely to be without health insurance than their landline counterparts (15.1%). Meanwhile, during the lead-up to the presidential election, the New York Times’ Nate Silver found that President Obama’s poll numbers were stronger in surveys that included cell phones, which could account for some of the wide discrepancies between what some pundits thought would happen and what actually did.

In addition to polling inaccuracies, Hurricane Sandy revealed another problem with the shift away from landlines when the FCC reported that, as the storm was bearing down on the East Coast, wireless outages exceeded landline outages. And once the power went out, wireless users faced additional issues since this meant that cell sites could not operate. Even if they could, phones themselves could not be charged. Like many of those who were lucky enough to have power, my house became a cell-phone charging station for anyone who needed it. My grandparents’ dusty, old rotary phone suddenly seemed a lot less obsolete.

Any new technology can have a downside, however. But this doesn’t mean that society is going to stop relying on cell phones any more than it meant we would abandon cars, even though they are probably more dangerous than horses. It just means that certain adjustments need to be made, whether that means practicing better poll sampling or installing more landlines for emergency use.

The truth is that times have changed and even though I once hated the idea, my phone is like another limb to me today. And Angry Birds isn’t going to play itself.

Morgan O’Rourke is editor in chief of Risk Management and director of publications for the Risk & Insurance Management Society, Inc. (RIMS)