Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash
Ah, yes – the good ‘ol landline phone. For the longest time, I couldn’t wait to get rid of our landline. Why keep technology in our home that’s been surpassed many times over? In fact, My kids have seen very few squiggly line phones and would not understand that reference if they heard it. But wait, does that legacy landline have a purpose during a power outage?
Do landlines need electricity? No. Traditional landlines do not need electricity to work; however, these types of phones and the infrastructure needed to support them won’t be around much longer.
Many articles will tell you a quick ‘yes’ or that the FCC mandates this technology. I’d encourage you to do your homework — as we have — to get the real story.
Stick with us for a bit and learn how this life-saving technology has been dying a slow death. Find out the status of the traditional copper lines and what types of phones you should have when the power goes out.
How Could Phone Work Without Power?
The wonder of the telephone network was a modern marvel. It truly transformed communications and provided insurmountable reliability. The beauty in this system was the power supply. The phone company powered the phones via minimal trickle of electricity transmitted over the buried copper telephones lines. When the power went out, you could count on the continuous power supply as the phone company maintained generators. So, nobody would fret when the power went out as they could pick up the phone, call for help, check on neighbors, or chat the night away as they waited for the power to come back.
Why Can’t We Continue to Use Landlines?
Well, the short answer is — good question. From the perspective of the carriers (Verizon and AT&T, et. al.) they’ll tell you the buried copper lines are rotting in the ground and they don’t want to shoulder the cost of repairing and maintaining those lines. So, in many areas, the lines provide such a poor experience that customers are forced to change. Ironically, that upgrade oftentimes is a more expensive alternative.
From the perspective of Bruce Kushnick, Contributor and Executive Director from the Huffington Post, there is a bit of fuzzy math going on when accounting for the number of copper lines that still exist. According to Kusnick, in a 2016 article, this is an initiative by the providers to “drive public policy decisions to ‘shut off the copper’, raise rates or not maintain the copper networks.”
I’ve read articles that suggest the providers still have a great deal of landlines customers on copper lines — also call POTS lines (Plain Old Telephone Service). One 2014 article quoted a Verizon spokesperson who claimed they still had 4.9 million paying residential customers on copper lines. The same article cited customer complaints that Verizon was refusing to repair those lines. One customer said “they told me if my copper-based landline needs repair, they will not repair it. So I’ll have no choice but to switch to FIOS or Cox, both of which have limited time battery backup in the event of power failures.”
Good to know when all else fails — the phone company will help us pay a bit more for the same service.
Is There an FCC Mandate for Landlines?
No. Especially with the advent of Voice over IP (VoIP) services. The FCC’s consumer guide on VoIP and 911 service states “VoIP service may not work during a power outage, or when the Internet connection fails or becomes overloaded.” The FCC recommends alternative communication methods, like cellular, as a backup to your phone service.
New Kids on the Block
Well, maybe not ‘new’, but certainly newer than your 100 year old copper phone system.
While the debate over copper continues, the likelihood of that service regaining momentum or attention is gone. Newer services are available that provide more functionality than traditional landline phones. And, if you’ve recently switched cable companies, you’re likely using a new service and don’t know it.
- Voice over IP (VoIP). Newer voice services over your internet connection are replacing traditional POTS (copper) service. This service typically comes with a battery backup in your basement where the equipment is installed. It can also service your old landline phone, which is why you may not be aware you’ve already switched. Don’t let the battery fool you. When the power goes out — you may have limited calls on the battery.
- Cellular. There will come a day when all wired service to your home is replaced by a wireless connection. Voice, data, cable — all of it. With 5G on the radar for most wireless carriers, you’ll see true broadband speeds that will replace the need for traditional telephone or cable infrastructure. The tradeoff is lack of redundancy. If everything runs on one network, well, hopefully, it never goes down!
Who Will Be Left Behind?
Unfortunately, rural areas stand to lose here. If you live too far away from urban areas, your copper lines are potentially rotting with no repair in sight. You’re also far enough out where a cell phone tower may not make economic sense for the carrier who wants to recoup their investment, but can’t get enough subscribers to justify the buildout.
Additionally, consider there are many services that still rely on copper lines that customers have yet to transition. Some life alert systems and home alarm systems rely on traditional landlines and may be compromised during an outage.
For now, your lines will continue to work. Just begin to think about plan B when those copper wires fail and the phone company is short on alternatives.
Not All Cell Towers Are Equal
Not all cell phone towers have battery or generator backup. Those that do, will have a limited amount of uptime after a power outage. Batteries may last up to four hours and generators will vary based on fuel type (i.e. diesel, LP, or natural gas) but count on 24 – 48 hours. For remote cell phone towers — consider how accessible the towers are to responding crews. If a hurricane has obstructed the roadways it will keep crews from replenishing the fuel.
Recommendations / Ideas
So, if the power is out. Check your landline first. If you’re up and running — great. You’re either on a traditional POTS line, or your battery backup is providing you some initial service. Keep in mind some backup communication alternatives:
- Cellular. This really is your best chance at maintaining communication. Remember, during emergencies the cellular network may be strained/congested. So, you may have difficulty making calls. Try texting, which uses a different communication channel and needs very little signal strength to send a text message. Also, social networks are good ways to maintain communication and get notifications on emergency situations.
- Walkie-Talkies. This may be an option to maintain communication in your neighborhood or home (short distances). Also, some more advanced walkie-talkies have a decent range and can tune into channels of local police and fire. Who better to contact in an emergency than the first responders themselves. If you ever have to leave your home, this method of communicating can mobilize easily. It is also worth noting that most large hurricanes can take out a large percentage of cellular towers making walkie-talkies a strong consideration. For less than $50 you can grab 4 walkie-talkies with 5-miles range (clear line of sight) or 1-2 miles in the city.
- Other alternatives are either too costly (satellite phones) or not widely used to make them effective — let alone justify the purchase (HAM or CB radios).
Until the last corded phone is thrown away, it isn’t a bad idea to have one handy in case of an emergency. If this is your primary phone then just be aware of your alternatives.
Losing power doesn’t mean you need to lose communication with your family, friends, or emergency services. It just takes a bit of knowledge on your current phone system and a reasonable backup plan. The good news — most people have cellular phones, which is a great backup. Moreover, most people today are choosing cellular as their primary phone. If you feel a backup is needed for your cell phone then I’d consider looking at our recommended gear section where we highlight the best walkie-talkies for power outages.
Our recommendation? Always have two ways to communicate and agree on that method with other family members. That way you’ll have a standard communication plan if you need to leave your home.
Good luck. Be safe.