Landlines disappear. But for some they are a lifeline.

In a small town at the foot of Mount Rainier, about 45 miles southeast of Seattle, the views are epic, but cell reception is spotty.

Susan Reiter has had a landline at her home in Enumclaw, Washington, since 1978. The power goes out several times a year, Reiter said, usually caused by high winds and other weather conditions. But the landline always works, she says, making it her best option if there’s an emergency and she needs to call 911.

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“There are people in rural America who need this service,” says Reiter, 77. “Maybe it’s not a big number, but for those people it’s a safety issue.”

The number of landline users has plummeted with the rise of mobile phones, and the days of 19th century technology appear to be numbered. Providers like AT&T want to get out of the industry by transitioning customers to cell phones or home phone services via broadband connections. But for many of the millions of people who still cling to their copper-based landlines, newer alternatives are either unavailable, too expensive or unreliable when it matters most: in an emergency.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, only a quarter of adults in the United States still have a landline, and only about 5 percent say they rely largely or solely on it. The largest group of people with a landline is 65 years and older. Meanwhile, more than 70 percent of adults use cordless phones exclusively.

The copper lines used for traditional landlines carry electricity over the wires, so as long as a phone is plugged in or charged, it will work during a power outage. Landlines are separate from mobile and broadband networks and are unaffected by their outages, making them a necessary safety net in rural areas. Many of those same areas have insufficient mobile or internet coverage.

“Three, four, maybe five years from now, many states will say, ‘OK, you’re allowed to discontinue service if you, the phone company, can demonstrate that a functional alternative service exists,’” says Rob Frieden, a professor at the Academy and emeritus. of Telecommunications and Law from Pennsylvania State University.

AT&T recently asked the California Public Utilities Commission to end its obligation to provide landline telephone service in parts of the state. The Federal Communications Commission, which must approve a request to end service, said it has not received a request from AT&T.

“We spend more than $1 billion a year in California to maintain our existing network and services, which are used by 5 percent of households today, and this is declining rapidly,” said Susan Johnson, head of AT&T’s Wireline Transform division, in an email. “That is about as efficient as cooling an entire high-rise building in the heat of summer, while the residents only occupy one floor.”

Hundreds of California residents called into CPUC public meetings last week to share their thoughts on AT&T’s request. The vast majority said Maintaining landline service has been a safety issue, with power outages, wildfires and floods cited as times when their landlines are the only way to reach 911 or get information about evacuations. Many said eliminating landlines would disproportionately affect the elderly, disabled and those with lower incomes.

The callers, mostly seniors, also said they could not get or afford reliable cell or internet service where they lived. Some have difficulty learning to use new technology or simply don’t like cell phones. One woman called cell phones “the decline of civilization as we know it.”

Despite the request, AT&T says it is not disconnecting customers with copper landlines at this time, and people can still sign up for a new landline. However, like other landline companies, the company hopes to transition these customers to alternatives.

One option is cell service, but coverage is inconsistent for people in less populated parts of the country and there is a risk of outages. An AT&T cell service outage on Feb. 22 left millions of customers in the United States without service for hours, according to the FCC, which is investigating the incident.

Another alternative is VoIP, or voice-over internet protocol, telephone service. It is a telephone line that runs over the Internet rather than copper, and can be used with a traditional home telephone, wired or wireless.

For example, Liz Bleakley, 39, runs her business, Good Hands Creamery. Bleakley only used a cell phone in her old life, when she worked in healthcare in Atlanta. But three years ago, when she moved to Windsor, Vermont, with her husband to become an artisanal raw-milk cheesemaker, she realized her cell phone wouldn’t cut it.

“We had the great experience of moving into our house and looking at our cell phones and there was a moment of horror: There are no bars,” Bleakley said in an interview via her home phone after losing cell service. “It’s terrible: your calls drop and you have to schedule times and situations where you can continue a conversation with someone.”

In a rural, mountainous area where snowstorms are common, she wanted an option for emergencies and business. Instead of getting a regular landline, Bleakley signed up for cable internet and got a VoIP number.

The Biden administration has pledged tens of billions of dollars to expand broadband service in the United States, which could help wean people off copper lines. But even if everyone had reliable access, there would still be issues such as power outages, software issues and affordability.

Some cable phone lines come with backup batteries that will last a few hours if there is a power outage, but if the power goes out for days, the home will need another option, such as a generator.

Victor Lund, 57, has a more reliable, albeit expensive, backup plan. The technology consultant from Arroyo Grande, California, bought satellite phones for his family. The small devices look like an old Nokia feature phone with an antenna and can stay charged for months or a year when turned off, Lund says. He prepaid $300 for 200 minutes and hasn’t used any yet.

“There are a lot of places where a cell phone doesn’t work in what I would call California civilization,” said Lund, who regularly explores the state in an all-terrain vehicle.

Other options appear regularly. Apple added a satellite-connected emergency response service to the iPhone 14 in 2022 and isn’t charging for the feature yet, though it could do so in the future.

For people with a landline they’ve had for decades, the promise of new technology doesn’t compete with the security of something that’s worked for so long.

On their 123-acre timber farm in Longview, Washington, Lisa and Robert Sudar have all the options. They have cell phones that work if they walk up a nearby hill, an Internet connection, a VoIP phone, and Starlink satellite service. And in a drawer in their hallway is an old Princess phone connected to a landline – the only thing that works during a power outage.

“It simply offers us as a population a lot of security if we have landlines available,” says Robert Sudar, who is 70. “It’s another way to communicate with people when the power goes out, and it’s a national security issue in my opinion.”

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