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Phone giants are fighting to ditch traditional landlines to save millions – but the huge AT&T outage this week is a chilling indication of why it would be a DANGEROUS move, customers say


Phone companies like AT&T and Verizon want to ax traditional landlines to cut costs – prompting fury from the elderly and rural customers most likely to be affected.

Thousands of California residents have filed objections to a bid by AT&T to waive its obligation to offer copper wire landline services in the state.

Customers say being reliant on cell phones to remain connected to the outside world would leave them vulnerable and isolated in the event of outages.

These are all the more likely in a state often struck by wildfires and earthquakes.

Those concerns were validated on Thursday when an AT&T network outage downed at least 70,000 cell phones, something it later blamed on a ‘software update glitch’.

Proving their point, those affected were instructed by authorities to seek out a landline if they needed to make emergency calls.

AT&T is the ‘Carrier of Last Resort’ in California, meaning it has to offer copper wire landline services to ensure everyone in the state has ‘safe, reliable, and affordable telephone service’

Charlene Hopey, 72, lives in the mountains around Santa Monica and still uses her landline phone. She is pictured with her husband

Charlene Hopey, 72, lives in the mountains around Santa Monica and still uses her landline phone. She is pictured with her husband 

Landlines that operate using copper lines can be more reliable than cell phones and internet phone calls (VoIP) since they can work without power.

That means a corded phone might still work in the event that a hurricane, tornado or flood leaves a community facing a power outage.

As it stands, AT&T is the ‘Carrier of Last Resort’ in California, meaning it has to offer copper wire landline services to ensure everyone in the state has ‘safe, reliable, and affordable telephone service’.

Both it and Verizon have previously indicated they want to be fully dependent on newer infrastructure within the next few years.

In its application to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), AT&T has argued that demand for ‘outdated’ landlines is low, and that freeing it of those obligations would enable it to invest in more important modern infrastructure.

One group that might be especially impacted by such a change is the elderly.

Charlene Hopey, 72, lives in the mountains around Santa Monica and still makes use of traditional landlines, she told USA Today.

Hopey also noted that she had friends that have been left unable to make phone calls following natural disasters in the past.

‘People could not communicate in an emergency,’ she told the outlet.

Those affected by at AT&T outage this week were instructed by authorities to seek out a landline if they needed to make emergency calls

Those affected by at AT&T outage this week were instructed by authorities to seek out a landline if they needed to make emergency calls

A corded landline can theoretically work even when there is a power outage. That's because landlines run on a small current supplied through the phone line

A corded landline can theoretically work even when there is a power outage. That’s because landlines run on a small current supplied through the phone line

Nowadays, there are a handful of ways to make a phone call.

Most traditional is the landline, which converts sound waves into an electrical signal which is then transmitted along copper wires as electricity. It is known as Plain Old Telephone Service, or POTS.

Cell phones are similar, but the signal is not transmitted along a wire but instead via radio waves to a local cell tower. The signal is then transmitted from that cell tower to a cell tower near to the receiving caller and similarly beamed to a receiving cell.

More recently, internet calling has gained prominence. It uses an internet connection to transmit the audio.

Many phone companies, including AT&T, have suggested that copper wire landlines can be replaced by fiberoptic cables also used to connect to the internet, but those require power to work.

Telecommunications companies say they offer better call quality and reliability. They also say many customers nowadays prefer to use cell phones instead of landline phones.

‘Although some might cling to the belief that POTS offers still better call quality, consumers have reached the opposite view: as noted, the overwhelming majority primarily use mobile wireless service for their voice calls,’ AT&T said in its application.

The number of households that still have landline phones has fallen significantly over the last two decades.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey indicated that more than 70 percent Americans now have wireless services only.

Landlines work by converting sound waves into an electrical signal which is transmitted along copper wires as electricity

Landlines work by converting sound waves into an electrical signal which is transmitted along copper wires as electricity

Another demographic protesting AT&T’s move in California are those living in rural communities.

‘If approved by the CPUC, over 580,000 affected AT&T customers would be left with fewer options in terms of choice, quality, and affordability,’ the Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC) said in a statement.

Patrick Blacklock, the president and CEO of the group told CNN in a statement that ‘traditional landline telephone service is the most dependable communications tool currently available in rural communities and is vital to reliably accessing 911’.

‘It is essential to retain affordable, safety net services especially in disaster-prone areas with fewer market options and comparable service quality that copper-based landline phone service provides,’ he said. 

‘Unfortunately, some regions don’t have effective cell coverage or broadband internet yet but do have landline coverage.’ 

An evidentiary hearing over AT&T’s waiver application has been scheduled for April and a decision is expected in September. 



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