Your Guide to Cutting the Cord to Landline Phones

    by Mark Glaser
    May 27, 2010
    The Ooma Telo is a $250 device that connects your phone to the Internet to make free U.S. calls (with a small monthly fee).

    From time to time, I provide an overview of one broad MediaShift topic, annotated with online resources and plenty of tips. The idea is to help you understand the topic, learn the jargon, and take action. I previously covered Twitter, local watchdog news sites, and Net neutrality, among other topics. This week I look at cutting the cord to landline telephone lines.


    The number of landline telephones in the developed world has steadily risen over the past century, but something changed in the last decade: A decline began. The International Telecommunication Union found that there were 57 fixed telephone lines per 100 inhabitants in the developed world in 2001, but that number dropped to 50 lines by 2007 (see chart below). What happened? The mobile phone revolution started displacing landlines as more people relied on cell phones and voice-over-IP (VoIP) services such as Vonage.

    It got to the point where we weren't answering the home phone and forgetting to check the messages." - Pam Collins
    i-4856e91f88e101e938a21c743c1aa98f-itu phone usage.jpg

    That trend is becoming even more pronounced in the U.S., where the National Center for Health Statistics recently found that in the second half of 2009 nearly one out of every four households relied completely on cell phones, while one eighth had landlines but rarely used them. As smartphones proliferate and offer text messaging, web access and addictive apps, people are spending more time with their mobiles rather than their landline phones. And the less time they spend on landlines, the more they wonder why they need to pay that extra cost. In recessionary times, people looking to save money make the calculations and cut the cord to landlines.


    Pam Collins, a speech language pathologist in Atlanta, told me she’s saving $50 per month by cutting the landline in her household.

    “We gave up our landline to cut costs when my husband was starting his business — we use our cell phones,” she explained in an email. “I have taught my children to unlock my phone and try to keep it in a central location for emergencies. It got to the point where we weren’t answering the home phone and forgetting to check the messages since anyone we wanted to talk to had our cell numbers. My mom just gave up her landline as well.”

    Just as I explained in the Guide to Cutting the Cord to Cable TV, some people find it daunting to give up a traditional service in exchange for a newer one. The newer services can be glitchy and not provide the service you expect with landlines. But many services such as Vonage and Skype have been around for years and score well in customer satisfaction.


    Cell Only

    The easiest way to eliminate your landline phone is to rely entirely on your mobile while at home. That means that you’ll need to have excellent cell coverage at home, or use a femtocell or microcell tower (see next section). It also means you should make sure you have an adequate plan to cover all the extra minutes you’ll be talking on your cell. The advantages of using your cell phone at home are obvious: No landline phone bill; only one phone number to share with friends and contacts; easy mobility to start a call at home and keep talking on the go.

    But there are downsides that come with cutting your landline and relying on your cell phone at home:

    > If there’s a power outage, you can’t communicate with anyone once your cell phone battery runs out. Many people keep a spare landline phone around that doesn’t require electricity to make calls. That becomes more difficult without the landline.

    > Similarly, in an emergency, when you call 911 from a landline phone, the operator can get a location without you having to tell them where you are. That’s not always the case with a cell phone. However, the FCC is trying to implement new rules so that 911 dispatchers can more readily locate cell phone callers.

    > It’s often easier to locate a landline phone in your house than a cell phone. Although with the proliferation of wireless landline phones, those can be misplaced as well. Another problem is that you don’t have one central shared phone for everyone in the household.

    > Reliance on cell phones leads to more asynchronous communication. As Dana Blankenhorn wrote recently on SmartPlanet:

    When you give up on calling and just send send a text, you become part of what I call the Asynchronous Nation. There is nothing inherently wrong with asynchronicity. It’s just very different. It’s the biggest change in human, electronic communication since the phone replaced the telegram, since synchronicity began in other words, over a century ago.

    Personally I don’t mind. I’m more productive when communication occurs on my schedule. And I find I can do more of it … What I have learned since cutting the phone cord is that the Asynchronous Nation is a different place from the one I lived in last century. How different we don’t yet know.

    Femtocells or MicroCell Towers

    One of the biggest issues with going cell-only at home is a weak signal from your mobile provider. The providers have a solution for that: The femtocell or microcell tower, which give you a mini-cell tower in your living room. Well, not really. Femtocells plug into your home high-speed Internet service and route your cell calls through them, offering perfect coverage and no dropped calls. Jim Rossman of the Dallas Morning News raved about his AT&T 3G MicroCell in a review, saying “it’s one of the best products I’ve ever reviewed” in part because it brought the solid landline feeling to his cell phone.

    But others find the idea of consumers paying to offload network traffic from cell carriers abhorrent. Nick Mokey at Digital Trends compares AT&T’s tactics to Tom Sawyer tricking people into doing his whitewashing work for him. AT&T in this case is getting the benefit of less network traffic, and also making you pay for it.

    “In exchange for taking your weight off its creaking, overburdened network, AT&T will happily charge you $150 for the 3G MicroCell, and continue to deduct minutes from your plan when you use it, even though you’re paying another company to handle your traffic, and paid out of pocket for the device to do it,” Mokey wrote.

    If that doesn’t bother you, and you’d like to try out a femtocell to turbo-charge your home cell coverage, here are the main options:

    AT&T 3G MicroCell

    Description: “Connects to AT&T’s network via your existing broadband Internet service (such as DSL or cable) and is designed to support up to four simultaneous users in a home or small business setting.”

    Price: $150, but you can get a $100 rebate if you sign up for the $20/month unlimited calling plan. Otherwise it uses your cell plan’s minutes. If you have AT&T DSL or U-verse, you can get an additional $50 rebate.

    Learn more here.

    i-7a562bc82d866ad0193d06d6425733a7-verizon extender.jpg

    Verizon Network Extender

    Verizon Network Extender

    Description: “Network Extender is easy to set up and ready to use right out of the box and can provide coverage in an area of up to 5,000 square feet.”

    Price: $250. No monthly usage fees.

    Learn more here.

    Sprint Airave

    Description: “Works with any Sprint phone — up to three users at the same time. Installs in minutes with your existing broadband Internet access, such as DSL, cable or T1.”

    Price: $100, plus $15 to $25 per month for unlimited calling.

    Learn more here.

    VoIP Services

    If you’d prefer not to go the cell-only route at home, there are various VoIP calling services, many of which allow you to use your existing phone. With VoIP, your calls are routed via the Internet, which means quality can vary depending on your high-speed connection and data loads. While the charges for long distance calls are usually tiny or free, there are a few other downsides with VoIP services, as reported by John Ewoldt in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: VoIP won’t work in a power outage; you need a broadband connection; fax machines won’t work with most VoIP setups; and you may need the computer to be on to receive or make calls.

    Alan Pearlstein, CEO of Cross Pixel Media, told me that he tried the magicJack VoIP service (see info below) but dropped it after call problems.

    “MagicJack was easy to install and was working well for me until I had a few negative experiences that led me to stop using it,” he said via email. “My calls were full of static and were being dropped every so often. It became unreliable for any important call. If I needed a second line at home I would probably use it for that, but not a main line.”

    Dan Frommer, deputy editor of Business Insider, told me he loves magicJack and thinks the company will be bought out or go public in the next six months.

    “I love it,” he said via email. “Pros: Cheap, reliable, cheap, reliable. Cons: Software not very elegant, need to leave it plugged in to computer (and need to leave computer on), blue LED keeps [my] bedroom slightly lit up.”

    If you’re still undaunted, here’s a rundown of some of the more popular VoIP services:

    i-cd2d1869223862c3acc8206e4aaedff7-vonage vportal.jpg

    Vonage V-Portal


    Description: “Your computer doesn’t have to be on to use Vonage. The people you call don’t need to have Vonage or the Internet to get your call — just a phone. And when someone calls you, your phone rings as usual.”

    Hardware: The Vonage V-Portal device costs $80 but is free when you sign up for a one-year service contract.

    Price: Vonage World is $15/month for first six months, then $26/month afterwards for unlimited long distance calls in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and unlimited calls to landline phones in 60 countries; Vonage Pro for $35/month; and Vonage Basic 500 for $18/month.

    UPDATE: Vonage now offers a cheap basic home phone plan for $10/month for 200 minutes, plus 5 cents per minute over that.

    Learn more here.


    Description: “Do amazing things for free: voice and video calls to anyone else on Skype; conference calls with three or more people; instant messaging, file transfer and screen sharing.”

    Hardware: Will work through your computer or laptop microphone and speaker, or you can get dedicated phones or headsets. Accessories here.

    Price: Free for calls or videoconferences to other Skype users; cheap rates for calls to mobiles and landlines around the world; unlimited U.S. and Canada calls for $8/month or unlimited calls to 40 countries for $14/month.

    Learn more here.


    Description: “Ooma lets you make free U.S. calls over the Internet with outstanding voice quality. No PC or headset required, just use your existing phone. The award-winning Ooma system offers 911 service, free U.S. calls, voicemail, caller-ID, call-waiting and low cost international rates.”

    Hardware: The Ooma Telo connects to your high-speed Internet connection and you plug your existing phone line into it.

    Price: $250. You need to pay taxes and fees each month, usually a few dollars, for unlimited U.S. calls; international calls are cheap per minute or you can pay $5/month for 500 minutes to 70 countries.

    Learn more here.




    Description: “magicJack is an easy-to-use portable device that allows you to use a traditional telephone handset to make and receive calls. magicJack utilizes a dedicated telephone network and provides cystal-clear call quality. magicjack provides a free telephone number and free voicemail.”

    Hardware: Small device plugged into computer’s USB port, and you plug your phone into it.

    Price: $40, but a limited free trial is currently being offered; $20/year after the first year, plus more for international calling packages.

    Learn more here.

    Google Voice

    Description: “Google Voice is a service that enhances the existing capabilities of your phone numbers. With it, you can access your voicemail online, read automatic transcriptions of your voicemail, create personalized greetings based on who is calling, make cheap international calls, and more.”

    Hardware: You provide your own cell phone, but can get a new number free.

    Price: Free; currently invite-only.

    Learn more here.

    Many of these services, including Skype and Google Voice, have mobile apps that will run on smartphones such as the iPhone. Plus, Vonage recently announced support for T-Mobile and Android mobile users.


    Ultimately, your decision on cutting the cord to landline phone service depends on where you make the most calls and whether you’re using it for business calls. If you are dead set on saving money but aren’t as worried about call quality, then solutions like Skype and magicJack would work. Or if you want higher quality calls, you might pay more for Vonage or Ooma. If you are hooked on a cell-only setup, buying a femtocell extender might do the trick. Just as with cutting the cord to cable TV, it might take some experimentation — and multiple solutions — to figure out what works best for your situation.

    More Reading

    To learn more about ditching your landline phone, check out these relevant articles:

    AT&T Tries to Trick Customers into Paying More to Use Less at Digital Trends

    AT&T wants to cut the cord as telecom industry transforms at the Peoria Journal Star

    Bringing You a Signal You’re Already Paying For at NY Times

    Cord-cutting Rates Exceed 40 Percent in Some U.S. States at Yankee Group blog

    Cell Phones Gaining On Landline Phones at InformationWeek

    Is Google Voice For You? at Boosh News

    Lower Your AT&T Cell Phone Bill with VoIP iPhone Apps at Digital Trends

    magicJack — Cheap, Way Overhyped, But Really Works by Walt Mossberg

    MagicJack Will Top $100 Million In Sales This Year at Silicon Alley Insider

    Ripoff — AT&T’s ‘Home Cell Tower’ Helps AT&T’s Congested Network While Eating Your Calling Minutes at Stop the Cap! blog

    Verizon Wireless Network Extender review at CNET

    What do you think? Have you cut the landline cord, and what services do you use instead? If you haven’t cut the cord, tell us why. Share your thoughts in the comments, and add in any missing services that you think are crucial. We’ll add them to the story with a credit to you.

    Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

    Tagged: at&t cell phones femtocells landline phones microcell sprint verizon voip

    13 responses to “Your Guide to Cutting the Cord to Landline Phones”

    1. Before ANYONE considers VOIP or cell as a replacement for a landline, think about the only times you really MUST call 911. It will be an emergency, and it might not be you calling.

      Do you use babysitters? If someone is choking would your babysitter remember the address? I’d love to cut my phone bills and use Uverse for my home phone, but instead of having 911 calls routed to the LAPD or LA Fire Department, they would go to a hub in Sacramento or Northern California where it would THEN be determined who to contact.

      What if you can’t speak? What if you think there’s a break-in in your home?

      Further, many areas have reverse 911, where after a tornado, flood, earthquake or other disaster messages are sent en masse to homes, are you willing to risk not having that message?

      I’m just not seeing the wisdom in getting rid of the address identifier that 911 provides.

      Until everyone in my house is an adult I’m not even considering getting rid of my landline.

    2. Heller says:

      I’m keeping mine. Like it has been mentioned, reverse 911 calls are important, especially if you are in an area that uses them. Plus, dead batteries, lack of reception (at least where I’m at) it’s just not worth worrying about. I also plan on keeping my land line as some what of a job stimulator. I’ve got relatives who work in telecommunications (the actual guys that hook up you land lines and keep them running). The past several years we have watched the number of disconnects sky rocket, and not very many new lines happen (and those tend to be DSL hook ups). It might not be such a big deal to some, but you are looking at yet more jobs lost by getting rid of your land line.

    3. Jessica,
      Good points. I had heard about the problem with reverse 911 as well as 911, but I do believe that various communities and governments (and the FCC) are working to fix that. If 1/4 of American households don’t have landlines, they are going to have to do a better job getting a fix on where mobile phone users are calling from.

      But your point is well taken on having children at home and not having a central point to communicate with them. It comes down to people’s comfort level removing the landline, and many people aren’t comfortable with that yet.

    4. Do you guys happen to know any studies of reverse 911 services’ success in emergencies?

      It seems like there needs to be an opt-in system where people could add their mobile number and municipality.

      And I admit complete lack of facts for this opinion, but I bet landlines (landline phones and VOIP) are more at risk of being cut off in “common” emergencies such as floods and wind storms than mobile phones would be.

    5. Andrew,
      There’s a link in the story to an FCC document where they are trying to push emergency services to do a better job of including cell phones in locating people. In the case of Denver area communities, they have tried to upgrade systems to take into account cell phone usage:


      You’re right, though, about landlines going out in emergencies — cell calls go out as well. The best communication in emergencies tends to be text messages. That’s how many people were saved during Katrina in New Orleans and recently in Haiti.

    6. Jason says:

      I decided to switch our family to Cell only about 2 years ago. There are a few downsides, but overall it has been a great decision. We live close to an At&T tower, so signal is great. My wife I both needed new cells and decided that instead of replacing the battery in out old landline handset ($20), to just switch it to her old cell phone when we upgraded so we didn’t even need to buy a new third phone. We pay $10 a month for each additional phone on the plan and a base fee for the shared minutes. So for 3 phones = Base fee +$10 +$10. But we were able to save $35 a month in landline fees, which kept going up every month even though we used it less and less. Since At&T uses rollover minutes, we always have more than enough to cover any calls. So we never even use VOIP. Also, calls to each other and some family members are free. The third phone stays home at all times and is even used by guests and babysitters.

      A few points you left out of this great article.

      You can switch an existing phone number to a cell phone for free. The phone company no longer “owns” the number, so you can move it around at will.

      Cells have features you might pay extra for on a landline plus some you can’t get: Caller ID, Voice Mail, custom ringtones (for different callers — like Grandma), Incoming calls can show pictures (so even my 2 year-old can identify who it is), easy to manage address books (which can even be shared between them via bluetooth).

      We can take the home phone with us if we choose to. On a few trips to family, we have packed the third phone with us to make sure we got important business calls.

      There is no range limit. I can walk around the yard as far from the house as I want to with the “home phone”.

      — Now I only wish the cell phone company would sell a “Home Phone” cell that is less portable but could keep a bigger battery (for emergencies), has bigger buttons for my kids, and takes a SIM card. People might not even notice it was a cell.

      Also, question. I was told by my city that even if I keep a landline phone plugged into the old hone line (and don’t pay for service), it can still dial 911. I haven’t tested it for obvious reasons.

    7. Ambra says:

      Very good article. You did not mention security issues though. By that I mean how safe is using a cell phone for calls such as phoning your bank to do telephone banking, or phoning your credit card, or ordering things by credit card? Also how good are cell phones for using your home computer to send or receive faxes? I use my home computer and land line to send the occasional fax, so I need that to work well. Those are the issues that stop me from cancelling my land line. Thanks for the good work.

    8. Jason,
      Sounds like you have a great setup using an extra cell phone as your “home phone.” You are lucky to have such good cell coverage as a lot of folks (including me) don’t have very good cell coverage at home. I think your idea for the cell “home phone” with bigger buttons and SIM card could work. I’m not sure about being able to dial 911 without having a landline setup.

      Many people do worry about cell phones not being as secure as landlines but I think many many people do give out credit card info via cell phones and don’t really think about it. Rather they’re right or wrong, I don’t know. But you’re right about faxing. There are online fax services that can do that for you, but if you want to send physical paper through most fax machines, you will need a landline. Of course with so many people using emails and attachments, less people are relying on faxes.

    9. Shalama says:

      I do not have a landline anymore. For a short period of time I had Vonage but gave that up too. I rely solely on my mobile. At first I worried about not having a landline phone but it hardly rang and I didn’t use it.

    10. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but landlines just might make a comeback. A study in India determined that cell phone signals are linked to the Bee population dying off. Are we going to kill off an essential species just for convenience so we can talk all the time? How did we survive before the fax, the modem, the Internet? Perhaps we need to live within certain constraints that minimize our destructive tendencies.

    11. jim levy says:

      We cut the landline as the kids got older and had their own cells anyway. The landline phone just wasn’t getting used. Our solution instead of Femtocells or MicroCell Towers was to take advantage of T-Mobile’s Hot Spot at home service, where we connect via WiFi. No minutes charged while on WiFi, so our bills are really minimized. I also connect via WiFi at the office, on the streets, and even abroad. Incredible

    12. Mary says:

      I have too many unanswered questions before cutting my landline and going to Verizon. My questions: (1) how would I receive faxes? (2) How do I figure how many minutes I will use per month? (3) Will I be able to get my credit on my Virgin pay-as-you-go cell phone refunded to me? (4) What kind of phone do I choose?
      And, I’m sure there are more questions that will come up as I get closer to actually doing this.

    13. Blueknight says:

      VOIP means voice over internet protocol, a cheap method of getting free
      phone service. Voip operators are not accredited with any government or
      police agency and do no have the same intensive training they receive.
      They are simply doing the same thing as if you called a business by
      mistake and the switchboard operator took the time to forward your call
      to the police 911 in her area. Stupid dangerous system that could cost a
      life since the time wasted bouncing this caller around could mean more
      brain damage to a stroke victim or a dead baby because the victim is not
      getting CPR. Police 911 call takers are trained to help you and when
      you dial 911 on a “real” phone you get them within seconds. Now tell me,
      is your life or a family member’s life worth the $5 a month you
      save.And don’t forget, everything you say to a police service on 911 can
      be held in confidence but voip 911 services are not even legally
      allowed to listen in let alone give you privacy and confidentiality.

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