A while ago, my wife and I did what we do from time to time — ask if there's another cost-saving opportunity we've overlooked. I don't know about you, but the quest for fiscal prudence is generally at its highest in our household after some indulgent purchase. “Hey, look! We can compensate for this luxo-foobie by slashing costs here!” (Are we the only people who do this?)
The indulgence in question was an iPhone. My trooper wife had been braving modern civilization with a dumb phone. (Someone from the '80s would have called a slim, foldable phone which sends text messages anything but dumb, but that's a different subject.) It worked fine and was cheap, but, well, even it began to show signs of age. Cell phones not being fine wine, I decided to surprise her with an iPhone, to heck with the cost. She did not resist.
Soon, however, guilt replaced the excitement, prompting the aforementioned introspection.
It didn't take long to identify a monthly cost glaring obviously at us — the landline. It cost us around $80 a month, bundled with DSL. That's a thousand bucks a year. Hey, that's almost what we're paying for the smartphone.
Why did we still need that dinosaur?
The arguments for its extermination are compelling, and we listed them with gusto:
1. We already have a phone each. Why do we still need yet another one? Besides, the cellphones have such convenient speed dials set up. My Blackberry (no comments, please) takes but one button-push to dial any of my friends, and hers is almost as good (not quite, but almost). We never make calls from the landline anymore.
2. The phones we have are with us wherever we go. The landline only works when we're home.
3. Flexibility. When you get a call and there's noise in the room, which is not uncommon in football season, you simply get up, take the phone with you and move to the patio or some other quiet place.
4. The cellphones are already expensive. Actually, let's rephrase that: Smartphones are expensive. First, you pay more simply because it's a smartphone, and then you pay for the data access on top of that. Of course, they can do much more than a plain old telephone. But the point is that we're already paying so much for these gizmos, they have to, for all that money, be able to supplant the dinosaur. Right?
5. Why pay twice for Internet access? We had a DSL/landline setup, as well as a data plan for our smartphones. Cut both the DSL and landline and, presto, we're not really such indulgent wastrels any more!
6. The landline bill keeps rising. The Big Money monopolies and their Big Government buddies keep finding innovative ways to keep that “basic” phone bill escalating by adding all manner of taxes and obscurely named fees. As a result, the final bill on a “basic” landline is about double what the actual landline is supposed to cost.
7. Join the herd. Almost 40 percent of households do without landlines, relying only on cell phones. If they can do it, so can we. No, make that: so should we.
8. And then, of course, the piece de resistance: those infernal robocallers. Our “servants” in the District of Columbia saw it fit to exempt themselves from the “Do Not Call” list, so every two years they love bombarding us all with countless dinnertime telemarketing calls. That's in addition to 700 local charities bombarding us with calls to come and pick up any crap we'd like to put out for them. (Maybe that's a sign, but that's for another time.) We've been religious in renewing our Do Not Call listing, but we still get five or more unsolicited phone calls on the landline every day. On the other hand, calling cell phones is more expensive for those nasty people than dialing landlines. Why? Because by law cell phone numbers must be dialed manually, making automated calls to cell phones illegal. The difference is very noticeable.
When we got to that argument, we high-fived each other. That was it! The landline must go. We felt so much better … and immediately went out for dinner to celebrate our thriftiness. (One must never let brilliance of this magnitude go unrewarded. Coming up with unassailable reasons to eat dinner out is, as you can tell, a finely honed skill in these quarters.)
A few months later, the euphoria was gone, and the lovely dinner long forgotten, as dinners usually are. My good wife had become an Apple fangirl, complete with iPad.
That was the good news. There was, unfortunately, some news not quite as good:
1. Standards. We discovered that we had different standards for Internet performance for home and elsewhere. When we're at a WiFi spot or on the road, we're tolerant if speeds are, shall we say, “side street.” But when we're home, we expect the Autobahn. Side street speed doesn't cut it at home.
Cell data technology is less than perfect. You can talk to a friend just fine from our house, but data transmission gets interrupted constantly. Several calls to Verizon resulted in different solutions, all of which went back to them after a week or so. They were very gracious in sending stuff and taking it back, but at the end of the day we were stuck with lousy Internet service.
2. Voice quality. We also discovered something we never realized before: The quality of a conversation is much, much better on a landline than a cell phone. In fact, we joke amongst ourselves that, if cell phones were all we had and someone came along with a new invention called a landline, that person would be hailed as a hero, win a Nobel prize and sell his company for several billion dollars in much the same way that television went from wireless to cable.
3. International. Being foreign-born, most of our family is in Europe and Africa. When they call us, it's free on the landline, but now we were paying for each (long) call. The calling plans for landlines are usually cheaper than what you can find for a cell phone — and with better quality.
4. Satellite. We use a satellite TV provider, and they charge us $5 a month more if we don't have a landline. Several hours of wrangling with numerous people of various ranks (including an insider friend) got us nowhere. I still don't understand why that's so, but it is. And that, of course, eats up some of the supposed savings.
Seeing it like that made me feel like a bozo for rushing into the Apple thing. Sigh.
OK, so now what?
I did what I first should have done when I was overcome by telemarketer hatred: I did some basic research. It turns out there are several other, quite important, reasons to think twice about cutting the landline cord.
5. You don't need to keep it charged.
6. When it rings, you always know where it is. You don't have to turn the place upside down to track down where you put it when you dropped the groceries on the counter, or went to the bathroom.
7. 911. There's a night-and-day difference in how 911 calls are handled. A landline call goes straight to the call center and they immediately know where you are. Help is on its way within seconds. Make a 911 call with a cell phone and it's a different story. A number of hoops suddenly appear, through which you have to jump before they'll even think of sending someone. And you have to spell out your address. Forget O.J. Simpson. If you're in a high-density area like a condo or apartment complex, they have no way to pinpoint your location with a cell phone.
So, if there's an intruder in your home, you can pick up a landline phone, call 911 and set it down. Maybe whisper “burglar” or something. But you don't need to alert the intruder as to your whereabouts or that the black-and-whites are on their way. Try doing that with a cell phone, and you end up spending several minutes trying to persuade someone (over a less than perfect connection) to please come and help and where to come, alerting the burglar where you are and what you're doing.
8. Kids. If kids need to make an emergency call, they know exactly where the landline phone is (every time). It's much faster and easier for them to call from a landline than a cell phone: pick it up, dial the number, done. With a cell phone, they first have to find out where it is, then push several buttons and follow prompts before they even enter the number. Oh, and once the number is dialed, there's yet another button to click to Send.
9. General emergencies. In a general emergency, the cellular system gets clogged much quicker than the landline system, so your chances of getting through on a landline are (while not perfect) much better.
One of the benefits of dealing with Big Companies is the person you call to eat humble pie and ask to take you back is not the person you spoke to you when you told them (politely of course) to pound sand a few months ago.
We now have the DSL/landline back in operation. Internet speed at home is, while perhaps not the Autobahn, at least urban freeway.
And, because some of us got spoiled with the luxury of a smartphone, we have no choice but to accept that our spending has gone up. OK, stick a fork in me.
Of course, if the guilt and shame become too much to bear, we can always sell our home and look for one 1,000 square feet or less…
What do you think? Can you make it work without a landline?
William Cowie spent 30 years in senior management (CFO/CEO) before retiring. He has a bachelor's, a master's, and a partial doctorate in management and strategy. Author of the book “The Four Seasons of the Economy,” William also assists medium-sized businesses in the use of the Four Season Strategy to help them capitalize on economic cycles. He runs two blogs: Bite the Bullet Investing (investing) and Drop Dead Money (the economy) and writes for several other blogs in addition.