BANGOR, Maine — Many consumers across the country, whether it’s to save money, simplify their lives or consolidate their communications, are cutting the cord.
Statistics show that, more and more, people nationwide are hanging up on their land lines and opting for cellular phones as their only means of telephone communication.
Mainers are no exception.
According to the most recent Federal Communications Commission report on the subject, the number of land lines nationwide has steadily dialed down each year, from about 192 million in 2000 to 163 million in 2007. That’s a 15 percent net loss.
At the same time, the number of mobile wireless telephone subscribers in the United States has gone from 114 million in 2001 to 238 million in 2007 — a 109 percent increase.
In Maine, the number of traditional land lines has decreased 21 percent, from about 850,000 in 2003 to 675,000 in 2007. Conversely, the total number of Maine cell phone subscribers increased 120 percent, going from about 400,000 in 2001 to more than 880,000 in 2007.
“We’re definitely seeing a big increase in the number of people getting rid of their land lines and just using cell phones,” said Sean Griffith, area sales manager for U.S. Cellular. “Statistics say almost one-fourth of American households have done that already.”
This trend, spurred by many factors, is prompting plenty of interest, reaction and even concern inside and outside the telecommunications market.
“It’s safe to say that not a day goes by that someone doesn’t come in to switch,” said Tyler Eagan, senior executive for the Wireless Zone cell phone store on Stillwater Avenue in Bangor. “I deal with about 10 to 15 people a week who want to do that.”
No cell phone hang-ups
Despite the bad economy, some people who have cut the cord say it’s not just about money.
“We figured ‘Well, we all have cell phones, so what are we doing with a land line?’” said Bangor’s Tyke McKay, a husband, and father of four children. “As the economy’s gotten tighter, anything we can do to trim costs here or expenses there has really helped. You know, at times I think it’s kept us afloat.”
McKay has a work-provided cell phone, but his wife, Kim, and his children are all on a family plan.
“You’re paying for a land line and a fee to have it, so you’re duplicating your efforts and cost if you already have a cell phone,” he said. “If you’re using your cell phone for 90 percent of your calls or more, you really don’t need your land line. I think it was a great investment, especially if you have a big family.
“The other thing is you don’t get a lot of telemarketing calls anymore. It’s a huge pain in the ass when you keep getting those.”
Amy Storey is the spokeswoman for Cellular Telecom and Internet Association, an international nonprofit membership organization representing the wireless communications industry.
Storey lost the dial tone on her own land line two years ago.
“It’s convenient. I can get Internet access or a phone call no matter where I am,” she said. “It provides you the freedom of mobility without losing touch with anyone.”
Storey cited a May Center for Disease Control and Prevention report titled “Wireless Substitution” that found one out of four American households is now wireless-only. That jibes with a March 2009 CTIA survey showing wireless-only households at 23 percent and a report from the National Center for Health Statistics pegging cellular-only homes at 22.7 percent, up from 3.2 percent in June 2003.
“A funny thing happened over the last 20 years,” said Dane Snowden, also of the CTIA. “People decided they wanted the convenience of being able to call someone or access the Internet from wherever they are, and cell phones have filled that demand.”
McKay said the decision to switch two or three years ago wasn’t initially an easy one.
“I’m old-school, so to embrace this technology was really kind of a leap,” he said. “Tradition is hard to let go of, I guess, but it has made more and more sense as we’ve gone on.”
Still on hold
Not everyone has jumped into the cellular pool without a life jacket. There are still some holdovers who see the value in having a land line.
“As I like to say, cell phones don’t work well, but at least they’re expensive,” said Orono resident and Bangor High School teacher Cary James. “They don’t work well all the time, your battery dies, and there are still pockets out there with no reception.”
James not only still has his land line as well as a cell phone, he also has put a land line in at his family camp in Meddybemps.
“We have no cell service or reception there,” James said. “Before, we’d have to drive to the top of the hill just to use our cell phones.”
Even some cell phone company executives have yet to cut the cord.
“I have small kids who don’t have cell phones, so I have [a land line] for them just in case there’s an emergency,” said Jennifer Schuler, public relations manager for Sprint.
For others, a cell phone presents just another complication in an already busy life.
“If I was a parent, I wouldn’t be doing this, but being single and self-employed, I find my life more manageable and simple without a cell phone,” said Orono native and photographer Andy Galeati.
Galeati, who has owned and operated Verona Studios in Bangor for 16 years, has decided to get rid of his cell phone after having one for the last 12 years.
“Having a cell phone means there are so many ways you can be interrupted during the course of the day and night,” Galeati said. “Even when you turn the ringer off, you still find yourself checking it all the time.”
Galeati cited two more reasons for getting rid of his cell which are identical to those many give for getting rid of their land lines.
“It’s a great way to save money and it’s a way to consolidate bills and other things for me,” he said.
James noted the irony of people citing cost savings as a primary reason to dump land lines.
“I mean, it used to be that people would get a $50 bill and think it was outrageous. Now people think nothing of paying $100 or more a month for one phone,” he said. “Plus, to me, the bill is incomprehensible.”
Heeding the call
People in the land line industry, such as Jim Sanborn, who heads up Lincolnville Telephone Co. and Tidewater Telecom, are keenly aware of the competition presented by wireless technology, and they’re concerned.
“It’s an issue for us because we have less customers, and sure, it’s a worry, but we’re a competitive industry now and we have to be as efficient as we can and give the best service we can like any other industry,” he said.
Sanborn, who is also president of the Telephone Association of Maine, says his industry must adapt and reinvent itself in order not only to prosper, but also to survive.
“I’d say reinventing generally started in the 1990s. It was obvious wireless was coming,” he said. “I think we have a challenge in that we have to provide a quality of service and type of service customers are going to need.”
Now, that service is broadband.
“We use our DSL product to provide broadband service to many customers and we see that as a major growth product,” Sanborn said.
If not, there may be a lot more people out there like Tyler Eagan.
“I’m 21 and I don’t know any of my friends whose families have land lines at their personal homes or apartments,” he said. “It’s all cellular.”