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Smoke signals, light beacons, messenger pigeons, telegraph—all of these forms of communications tech were widely used, then suddenly abandoned. It’s gotten to the point that unless you’re reading a history book, you might forget they even existed. For centuries, humankind has followed this pattern of development and obsolescence, and most researchers today would agree that we’re teetering on the brink of abandoning yet another form of communication technology: landline phones.
Just this month, the CDC released a new survey that indicates nearly 50% of American households no longer use landline phones. Even more striking is the fact that 71% of 24-34 year-olds surveyed solely use cell phones. Younger generations are clearly phasing out landlines, and embracing cell phones and the Internet instead. At this point, you may be thinking, “So what?” or even “good riddance”. However, we’re here to tell you that the loss of the landline telephone network poses a major threat in disaster scenarios.
First, we need to establish why phone communication (either landline or cellular) is important in a disaster scenario. Many of us may plan to bug out if there’s a large-scale disaster, and if you’re going to cut and run, you may not think you’d need a phone. However, there are many factors that could make a phone call your best chance for survival.
Even if you have established a location to meet your friends or family after a disaster—which you absolutely should—things often don’t go according to plan. The location you intended to meet at might be inaccessible, overcrowded, or affected by the disaster you’re trying to escape. If you need to go to plan B, a single phone call can help you inform friends and family of this change, in case you can’t communicate again.
Additionally, if things really go wrong, you may end up with broken bones, a gunshot wound, or other serious injuries that you may not survive without immediate medical care. Even if a phone call to 911 is impossible, you can call someone you trust to come to your aid. Again, you may think you can be self-reliant during a disaster, but emergency communication often becomes necessary whether you like it or not. A quick phone call can make the difference between life and death.
Now that cell phones have been going strong for decades, many people are ready to leave landlines behind. However, cell phones have proven time and time again to be less reliable when SHTF. For example, during Hurricane Sandy, roughly one in four cell towers went out of service, leaving thousands of New York City residents unable to communicate. Even with battery backups, cell phone towers rarely last for more than four to six hours if the power grid is down.
While backup generators could extend cell tower service for a day or two, cell service providers are reluctant to install them in most towers due to cost. This limited reliability can be compounded by panicked masses making thousands of calls at once, and overloading the few towers that still have power. In the end, if the power grid goes down, you should expect your cell phone to be useless in mere hours, if not sooner.
Even in ideal conditions, cell phone reliability is less than perfect. We’ve all experienced the frustration of garbled conversations, dropped calls, or text messages that never make it to their intended recipients. Even the GPS data for 911 calls is often unreliable or inaccurate. Then there’s the simple issue of phone battery life, which can run out in hours if your device is constantly searching for a signal that’s not there. When it really comes down to it, we have traded dependability for portability and convenience, but having a phone in your pocket isn’t much use if it can’t make calls.
So, what’s so great about landlines, anyway? They don’t take photos, they don’t fit in your pocket, you can’t use them in the car, and you can’t even play Angry Birds on one. There’s a single word that defines why we need landlines, and this word means everything to disaster preparedness: reliability. Hardwired telephones have been in use for well over 100 years, and countless man-hours have been spent on their design, development, and maintenance.
With this long history comes a number of advantages. Essentially, all the bugs have been worked out long ago, and the technology behind landline phones has been fully optimized. There are no software glitches, no SIM cards to swap, no compatibility problems, and no fragile touchscreens to break. There’s a handset, a few buttons, and an internally-powered cable that connects to a massive infrastructure of telephone wires.
You may notice we mentioned that landline phones feature an internally powered cable. This is one of their largest advantages, as it means that even if your power is out, there’s a very good chance you can still make phone calls. Most phone companies have a long-established backup generator system already in place at your local hub, which can keep landline phones operating for a week or more, even if the remainder of the grid is down and your other electronics are long dead.
If you’re not sold on paying for a landline for your home, remember that landlines are accessible virtually everywhere in an urban setting. You can call from your office, a payphone (although they’re becoming rarer these days), or make 911 calls from just about anywhere with a landline phone jack (even if it’s no longer in service for regular calls). Speaking of 911 calls, the operator will receive your location much more reliably with a landline than with a cell phone.
So, what can we take away from this? If a major disaster strikes, a cell phone may be good to have for the first hour or two, but it’s almost certainly going to fail you after that. You should plan for this, and either have a landline phone at your home, or know a location where you can quickly and easily access one if necessary. Of course, there are alternate means of communication to consider (most importantly, CB and Ham radio), but that’s another can of worms for a different day.
For now, don’t disregard landline phones as ancient technology. They might just save you when you need it most.