Clarence Fanto: Hanging up on the old landline
Operator, oh, let’s forget about this call.
There’s no one there I really wanted to talk to.
Thank you for your time
Oh, you’ve been so much more than kind.
You can keep the dimeŠ
-- Singer-songwriter Jim Croce (1972)
It’s been 42 years since Jim Croce’s "Operator" hit the pop charts. I listened to it the other day out of nostalgia for a time when the only way to call long-distance, especially in rural areas and from public phone booths, was through a live operator running a switchboard.
Croce died in a chartered-plane crash in 1973, but if he were around today, he might be writing an elegy for the old, reliable landline phone that may soon be a relic of the past if Verizon and AT&T have their way.
That’s right, in your lifetime and mine cell phones or the Internet will be the only ways to "reach out and touch someone," in the words of the 1979 Bell System commercial. Especially for people under 40, voice phone calls are as antiquated as a handwritten personal letter sent by first-class mail.
The big telecom companies see the tidal wave of the present and future washing away the century-old, copper-wired phone system that nearly always worked, even in a power blackout -- the one form of communications we could count on.
At last count, 38 states have considered or already passed laws eliminating phone company "carrier of last resort" requirements, a guarantee of universal service that gives everyone the right to local landlines.
Massachusetts lawmakers are considering a bill to create an "innovation policy" to encourage growth of the wireless industry by prohibiting regulation.
"The vast majority of Massachusetts consumers have access to multiple companies offering voice services," according to the proposal under discussion in Boston. If approved, the state would retain its authority "only over basic landline telephone service in those few remaining geographic areas in which there is only one provider of retail voice service" (landline, wireless, or Internet). The bill would retain "generally applicable consumer protections."
Verizon and AT&T argue that Internet-based broadband networks, as well as cellular service, are superior substitutes for landlines.
The new state law under consideration would protect portions of mostly rural areas like Berkshire County that still have spotty cell tower coverage and hit-or-miss high-speed Internet service.
If and when the time comes that every home and business in the county has reliable broadband and/or cell service, would anyone even miss Alexander Graham Bell’s 1876 invention that revolutionized communications?
The omens are ominous for those of us who prefer the stability, reliability and superior audio quality of a landline. Nationally, 40 percent of adults and 46 percent of children live in homes without one, according to the U.S. government. Only 8 percent of homes relied solely on a landline, the 2013 survey reported, while 2 percent had no phones of any kind.
Advocates of preserving wired phone service cite safety issues. Calling 911 from a landline provides the emergency dispatcher with an exact address, even an apartment number. Pinpointing a location through a cell phone is far less specific, even if GPS navigation is available. Currently, medical monitoring devices as well as home and business alarm systems depend on a 100 percent reliable, land-based connection.
For a phone company to disconnect its landline network -- as AT&T has formally requested -- is up to the Federal Communications Commission, which has the sole authority to grant or deny such applications.
But, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, lobbyists are hard at work on behalf of the telecom companies, so the FCC has approved an AT&T experiment in Carbon Hills, Ala., population about 2,000. The guinea-pig town will test how well emergency services and day-to-day business or personal transactions function solely through the Internet or fiber-optic cable.
Still a mystery: Why there’s no convenient listings directory for cell numbers. One answer may be that it’s a privacy barrier against those pesky telemarketers and other unwanted callers. Now it’s harder than ever to reach some people, unless they’ve shared their number.
According to FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler, "Revolution is all around us. Š This pilot program will help us learn how fiber might be deployed where it is not now deployed Š and how new forms of wireless can reach deep into the interior of rural America." His take is that customers could see "massive benefits" from superior technology and lower prices.
AT&T’s goal is to persuade federal regulators to force the company’s new customers to depend exclusively on high-speed Internet or cellular connections. Landline service would be phased out for current users. Bottom line, according to regional AT&T executive Fred McCallum, is "an exciting opportunity for our customers and for our company."
The FCC’s decision to allow these experiments encouraged AT&T to discontinue access to landlines for new customers in part of Delray Beach, Fla., a haven for retirees where half the population is over 65.
In its January order, the FCC stated that "the lives of millions of Americans could be improved by the direct and spill-over effects of the technology transitions, including innovations that cannot even be imagined today."
Inevitably, Verizon and AT&T, with more than 250 million customers combined, are likely to achieve their goal to shed old, expensive technology, just as many people are doing already.
Only a public outcry could preserve the phone service many of us grew up with. So far, it seems, there are only a few voices in the wilderness trying to resist the forces of presumed progress.
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