More Than Half of American Homes Don't Use a Landline

With the ascent of mobile, landlines dip back to World War II-era penetration.


The landline phone has died and gone to heaven. (the russians are here/Flickr)

We all knew this day was coming: According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control (which tracks these sorts of things for its phone surveys), more than half of American households (51.7 percent) don't regularly use a landline phone. The majority of those (35.8 percent) don't have a land line at all and another 15.9 percent have the line, but say they don't use them very often if ever.

The shift away from landlines toward mobile is happening very quickly. In the four years that the survey covers, the percent of households that have a landline but no wireless service has dropped from 17.4 to 9.4 and the percent that are wireless only has leapt up from 20.2 to 35.8.

As Derek Thompson showed last year, the rate of technology adoption has generally increased over the the past century. It took landlines until 1975 to achieve the prevalence that mobile has today (about 90 percent).

technology adoption rate century.png

Visual Economics

But the chart misses the decline in landlines that the CDC's numbers show. By that account, the percent of households with a landline is now around where it was mid-century, and the percent of households using one (regardless whether they have it available to them) bends the line back down to World War II-era levels.

But the most interesting aspect of the CDCs report is not the big picture but the smaller one: Who the people are on either side of the landline/mobile divide. What we see here is that there are four demographic groups where the *majority* do not have any landline at home: Americans ages 25-34 (55.1 percent), adults living with only non-related roommates (75.9 percent), renters (58.2), and adults in poverty (51.8). (Among the richest Americans, 30.7 percent are mobile-only, which is still lower than the percent was for the poorest Americans in 2008, the earliest year for which data is available.) The overall picture is that the more stable your living situation, the more likely you are to have a landline. And this makes sense: If you're moving often, you're not going to bother with installing a landline, only to have to go through the hassle of disconnecting it and transferring the number later (if you stay in the same area code at all).

It's intuitive that wealthier Americans are usually among the first to adopt a new technology -- if you have financial flexibility, you can afford to try things out that may not stick. What we have in this data on the landline's decline is a portrait of the other end of that same phenomenon. Just as richer Americans have the means to adopt early, they also have the means to hang on longer: Why choose one when you can have both? 

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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