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Landlines - Relic or Essential?

The recent widespread AT&T cell network outage suddenly left users across the country without the ability to call, text or access the internet. In today's ultraconnected world, this situation raised eyebrows but for emergency responders, it raises concerns.

During the AT&T outage, a flood of users began testing their service by calling 911, which diverted emergency resources. Others with true emergencies did not have cell phone connectivity to call 911. With the overwhelming reliance on mobile phones, many people aren't prepared to manage emergency communications when the power is down or cell networks are not working.

This raises the question about the options for an emergency action plan with backup contingencies.

Landline phones rely on an infrastructure of copper wire and have dedicated power, which makes them reliable even in an outage. Emergency calls from a landline can be instantly traced back to the caller's precise location and that is a great advantage for responders. The problem with landlines is diminishing support by providers. It is reported that less than one third of households in America have landlines compared to 90% twenty years ago. The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is phasing out requirements for phone companies to provide landline services. Currently, the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) is considering a petition by AT&T to discontinue copper-line phone service if other voice service options are available. If the petition is accepted, it will set a precedent for other telecommunication companies to abandon support of landline service.

Some potential backup solutions when cell phone networks are down:

  • You can typically route mobile phone calls and texts via a WiFi connection. The WiFi setting on your phone must be turned on. You can use WhatsApp, Zoom or FaceTime to call a message someone who may have connectivity.

  • If the “SOS” icon is in the upper right corner of your phone, you can still dial 911.

Extreme weather patterns and a number of situations will continue to test energy grids and communications infrastructure. This means businesses and families alike need a plan to deal with emergencies when the power is down and connectivity is limited.


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