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The Bakersfield Californian Robert Price column: Ode to a dying friend: the telephone land-line
[August 17, 2008]

The Bakersfield Californian Robert Price column: Ode to a dying friend: the telephone land-line

(Bakersfield Californian, The (KRT) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Aug. 17--Pretty soon, if telecommunications companies' quarterly reports keep trending the way they've been trending, land-line phones will be relics. The number of wireless-only homes keeps going up and the number of wired residential customers keeps falling.

If you're under 35, that's not a particularly dramatic revelation. If you're under 25, it may strike you as quaintly amusing that anybody would even care. But for old, increasingly irrelevant people like me, the demise of the land-line is vaguely unnerving. Plug-in telephones are essential household utilities, like toasters and indoor plumbing. Well, they were. Now they're one of the items you keep somewhere near your wallet or your car keys, because when you go out the door, they come along.

That much I get. It's dealing with cell phones at home that I can't get used to. I guess I've just never really been comfortable with wireless phones. So small, so delicate, so easy to drop in the toilet. Where's the mouthpiece, anyway? And since I can never seem to get adequate reception in my house, I'm compelled to pace around until I find a sweet spot. That's the sort of problem you're supposed to expect when you're camping in the wilderness, not when you're ordering pizza in front of the TV.

Everyone is my family has a cell phone, and we keep them all piled in one general area of the kitchen at night, nestled together where they can suckle on their charging cords like little electronic puppies. I just find that arrangement too sloppy, too random. I like the idea of my phones having a more secure base, a place where they can sit upright and dignified, without countertop competition from oven mitts and the morning paper.

That why I'm so fond of the 1940s-vintage Western Electric phone that sits on my nightstand. Someone has left the kitchen cordless off its charging station again, and abandoned it under a sofa cushion? And the household cell phones have all gone dead? Well, you can count on Old Lucy to keep ringing with that dull, barely audible thud. Since the phone weighs roughly the same as a cinder block and has a two-foot-long handset cord, rendering it inconvenient almost to the point of uselessness, it's not going anywhere. Hasn't for 20 years now.

Compare that with my wife's nine-month old Samsung wireless, which recently stopped working for no apparent reason. Even my 12-year-old couldn't get it to work, and he can actually operate a DVD player. The bright-eyed clerk at the phone store couldn't get it work either, but she had good news: We were close enough to the end of the contract for my wife to get a new phone on the cheap, as long as we were prepared to re-enlist on a new two-year contract.

I'm already accustomed to that little merry-go-round, which is a good thing, because there's only more of the same in my future. Much more, to the point where it may eventually become the only option.

The wireless industry has boomed this decade, from just under 110 million subscribers in December 2000 to 233 million in December 2006. Meanwhile, land lines have fallen somewhere between 4 percent and 6 percent each year over that period. By 2006, local exchange access lines had dropped to 140 million, about the same as in 1991.

We can attribute the change to several things: Better, more convenient and cooly equipped wireless phones, as well as the growth of cable- and Internet-access phone service from companies like Skype.

The economy has become a factor too. Consumers are starting to treat home-based telephones like expendable luxuries. When the gas-card bill starts resembling the mortgage payment, it's logical to start looking for ways to cut fat. That daily latte? Nix. The land-line we find ourselves using less and less? Bye-bye. We'll make do.

Of course, making do means dealing with "free" minutes and "over" minutes, dead spots and dead phones, retail lines and rebate forms. I'm nostalgic for the days when phones continued to function long after the numbers on their touch-tone buttons had been obliterated by overuse -- and I haven't even reached that day yet.

But check back soon. The gas-card bill was $700 last month.

Reach Robert Price at 395-7399 or [email protected].

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