A widespread wireless network outage makes this editor glad he had a landline phone handy.

Spencer Chin, Senior Editor

February 23, 2024

4 Min Read
Landline phones are being phased out, which could create issues in emergencies.
Despite many improvements, landline phones are used in fewer households as more use wireless phones as the primary means of communication.rarrarorro/ iStock / Getty Images Plus

At a Glance

  • A major wireless network went down early Thursday, disrupting phone service for thousands including this editor.

This past Thursday morning was not exactly a pleasant or productive one for this Design News editor. Aside from having to fill in a bit on elder care duties, I was notified by my spouse, who was a bit under the weather, that I was not picking up my mobile phone and checking texts she sent while I was holed up in my home office. She could only contact me via the landline phone. When I checked my mobile phone, I saw messages that the phone was not connected to a network.

Several phone reboots later, the problem remained. I even tried switching the phone to airplane mode in a futile attempt to connect to the AT&T Wireless network that Cricket Wireless, my mobile service provider, uses, to no avail. With my mobile network not working, I used the landline phone to call Cricket Wireless. After navigating their menu of options, I received a message that the queue for tech support help was stretching to over an hour. I agreed to stay on hold, but at some point during that wait, I was given a voice prompt to either continue staying on hold or have customer service return my call. When I chose the former, I was then given the strange message that the customer service line was not operating and I would have to call back.

When I called back, the automated message changed, stating that Cricket Wireless was having technical problems and that the best way to make calls was to use the phone’s Wi-Fi calling feature. At that point, I decided to go online to find out if there was a wider issue, and lo and behold, several online news articles stated that the cause of the network outage was unknown, though there was some speculation that a cyberattack may have occurred. In any event, AT&T’s network was down and causing problems nationwide.

By late morning my mobile phone service was restored and I was back in operation. But the outage caused a furor among AT&T Wireless subscribers, with Google searches for ‘Cancel AT&T’ spiking substantially during the period the network was down.

The Landline As Backup

Being of the generation I was raised in, I have always owned a landline telephone, though since 2006 the landline connection has been through fiberoptic Internet rather than traditional copper cable. While Internet outages have occasionally cut off my communications altogether, in this case, I could use the landline phone to reach people.

Unfortunately, I am part of a slowly dying breed. A 2022 article on the site of the information service Statista, quoting data from the  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noted that landline phones, which in 2004 were found in 90% of American homes, now are found in less than 30% of homes, and likely rapidly declining. Another article from the Washington Post from last June pegged that number at 25%, with people over 65 comprising a large portion of those holdouts.

For many elderly people, their comfort with landline phones and relative unfamiliarity with wireless technology is a major factor. Many emergency alert systems are tied into landline phones located in a specific residence location, rather than a mobile phone which an elderly person may easily forget the location of.

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Carriers Phasing Out Landlines

Communications service providers whose history is in landline phones are also seeking to exit that business as it becomes unprofitable for them to maintain copper landlines. Like Verizon, AT&T has been steering home customers to fiber networks as a condition for customers maintaining home phone service.

Without landline phones, wireless phone users can still make emergency calls on their mobile devices. But given the propensity of wireless networks to become jammed and unreliable in some emergencies, one wonders if the old-fashioned landline still has some usefulness.

Besides Thursday’s AT&T network outage, I have been in situations, for instance trying to resolve some customer service issues, where it is easier for me to tie up a landline phone for an extended wait rather than stay on the mobile device where the network can suddenly become unstable. Believe me, this has happened a few times on my mobile phone and I would have to call again and stay on hold.

My musings may not matter in the long run. There will come a day, probably in the not-too-distant future when a Design News story on obsolete technology includes a landline phone.

About the Author(s)

Spencer Chin

Senior Editor, Design News

Spencer Chin is a Senior Editor for Design News, covering the electronics beat, which includes semiconductors, components, power, embedded systems, artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, and other related subjects. He is always open to ideas for coverage. Spencer has spent many years covering electronics for brands including Electronic Products, Electronic Buyers News, EE Times, Power Electronics, and electronics360. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him at @spencerchin.

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