Storms, power outages and other emergencies can suddenly and all too readily demonstrate the limitations of our beloved cellphones. With no way to charge them and no way to make calls — whether it's due to malfunctioning cell towers or congested wireless networks — that device you use mostly to text and access the internet may not be good for much more than serving as a very expensive flashlight.
As a result, you may stop and consider the value of that lumbering piece of technology that sits forever tethered to the wall, the landline telephone. Yes, that holdover from the end of the 1800s is still around and ringing, and it could be the only way for you to reach and call someone in the event of an emergency.
But only if you have the right kind.
The phone rings for thee
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 46 percent of American households still had landline telephone service by the second half of 2016, while almost 51 percent had only cellular service in their home. While the survey didn't get into why people kept their landlines, Consumer Reports suggests a few reasons why some keep their landlines, including.
1. Better call quality. Chalk up your cellphone's tinny call quality to the small receiver and microphone on the device and bandwidth allocation, says Scientific American. While cell providers are inching their way toward to better calls, a landline's quality tends to be on the crisp and clean side.
2. Saving a bit of money. Some households are still getting good deals on their home phone service thanks to bundle deals with the telecommunication company. Dropping the landline may force them to start paying more for the services they already have.
3. Emergency contacting. This is probably the big reason a lot of folks keep their landlines. In the event of a power outage or emergency, a landline phone is still capable of making calls, especially to 911. They're also more precise in this scenario than cellphones are; 911 operators will have your location information right on their screens when you call from a landline, but they don't always have immediate access to your location if you call from a cellphone. This is particularly important in situations where communicating verbally might be difficult.
However, even this last, and perhaps most valuable, perk of a landline isn't always available, and this is where things get tricky about whether or not you should have a landline.
Copper lines vs. VoIP
The reasons why landlines are so prized for emergency situations is because when we talk about landlines, we're talking specifically about copper wires that connect to switch boxes and transmit calls between phones plugged directly into the wall. The benefit of these copper-wired connections is that the phone company is supplying power through the copper wires, and that's what keeps the lines up and running. Even when the lights go out, there's still a dial tone when you pick up the phone.
The challenge for telecom companies is that while copper wires are great for making phone calls, they're lousy at transmitting things like cable television and internet, especially over long distances. They're also not great when you add additional features (apart from caller ID or call waiting) and that makes them a tough sell. Additionally, copper wiring is expensive to maintain for the telecoms, and since they don't offer a whole lot and options and fewer people are using them, the incentive to keep them in good order may be low on the priority list.
Nowadays, when you look into adding a landline, you're more likely to end up with a voice over internet protocol phone, or a VoIP line. These phone lines transmit over the same cables and wires used for the internet. Many such phone lines need to be plugged directly into your internet gateway device to function. These VoIP are typically what telecoms — especially the companies that started off as cable companies — offer in their myriad bundles since they don't have copper line holdings.
Naturally, this means that when the power goes out, your phone line is almost certainly going to go out as well. It requires an internet connection to function, after all. In some instances, companies may offer a battery back-up for the phone that can last up to eight hours, depending on use, but it's up to you to maintain the battery, replace it and even test it to make sure it works in the event of an emergency.
For the legacy phone companies that now offer TV and internet services, copper wiring may be available but the question becomes for how long? We already mentioned that copper wiring can be expensive to maintain, but when you factor in that the companies now have to maintain the lines and wires that likely generate more revenue in addition to the copper wiring, it seems like a potentially losing battle.
Phone line alternatives
In the event that you can't get a copper-wired phone, or you're not fully convinced by the battery back-up, there are a few other communication options available to you.
1. Satellite phones. Unless the emergency you're facing is a massive meteorite strike, satellite phones will allow you to make a phone call in an emergency. Plenty of these phones can use solar power, which means that even if the power is out, so long as you have access to sunlight, you're good to go. Satellite phones can be fairly expensive to maintain, so this a costly alternative.
2. CB radio. CB radios have a limited range, and despite their popularity with some groups, particularly with truckers, if there's not someone else operating a CB radio in the area, it's not going to solve your communication problem, good buddy.
3. Ham radio. This likely your best alternative to a phone in any sort of an emergency, provided you have a power supply like a small generator or a solar bank. Ham radios have access to plenty of emergency frequencies to monitor even if you can't transmit on them. However, there are significantly more ham radio operators out there than CB operators, and your chances of reaching someone is greater. Ham radio operation does require you to get an operating license of some sort (there are three different ones), but the ability to communicate when you most need it could be well worth the studying and the exams.