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At Last Count Who's Calling?
Caller ID demographics

(Click on the map above to see a larger version (60k)). 

SPURRED by the recent proliferation of telemarketers, American householders have increasingly turned to Caller ID for relief from unwanted telephone calls at home. Use of the technology, which allows subscribers to identify callers without lifting the receiver, has changed over the decade that it has been in existence: early customers bought the service primarily to protect themselves from harassing phone calls, whereas today's users more commonly just want to know who's on the line -- friend or stranger. "It's become a kind of electronic peephole," explains Steve Lutz, the product manager for Caller ID at Southwestern Bell.

map key Fifteen percent of Americans now pay for Caller ID, and, as shown on the map above, which was derived from demographic surveys in 212 media markets, the highest concentrations of subscribers are found mostly in the South. A disproportionate number of Caller ID users are members of young African-American and Hispanic households of modest incomes -- a trend reflected in the above-average numbers of users clustered along the Mexican border and the Gulf Coast. (The service is relatively inexpensive, typically involving an initial outlay of less than $30 for an identification box and a monthly fee of less than $8.00.) In the nine southern states served by BellSouth, nearly half of African-American households subscribe. Among Hispanics the rate is 54 percent; researchers point out that the service allows those who are not fluent in English to determine whether the person calling is a familiar Spanish-speaker before they reach for the phone.

Migration patterns are a major factor contributing to regional differences, because consumers typically elect to add phone services such as Caller ID and Call Waiting when moving into new homes. The booming Southwest and many sectors of the rapidly growing Southeast therefore show above-average rates of Caller ID use. One anomaly is the thriving California coast. As the last state to permit phone companies to sell Caller ID, California approved the service in 1996 with the stipulation that companies first advertise to customers the option of protecting their privacy by blocking their phone numbers from being identified. The advertisements were so effective that some 40 percent of Californians are now such stealth callers, making Caller ID virtually worthless in some regions of the state.

-- Michael J. Weiss

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1999; At Last Count - 99.07; Volume 284, No. 1; page 71.