Just a few years ago, home telephone service was relatively straightforward. A complex global spiderweb of copper wires , owned by telecom companies, connected buildings to other buildings. Phones plugged into jacks in the buildings, encoded sound into data, transmitted the data through the wires, and sent the data to a specific destination (phone number), where another phone decoded it back into sound. There were no alternatives; until 1983, a legal monopoly meant consumers weren’t even allowed to own their own telephones.

But things changed.

…consumers are choosing to liberate themselves from the legacy of landline-based telephony.

Today, consumers are choosing to liberate themselves from the legacy of landline-based telephony through the internet at a snowballing pace, and the number of adults with only a cellphone rose from single digits in 2003 to more than half (57.1%) in the latest reporting period. If the trend remains steady, the percentage of homes unplugging from landlines is rising by nearly 3% per quarter.

With more than half the nation now using “alternatives” to landlines, home phone alternatives are the new mainstream. But what are they? What are the pros and cons of breaking the bundle and cutting the phone cord? What are the potential savings?

Potential savings with landline alternatives

Each landline phone carrier is different, which makes estimating potential savings more an art than a science. Estimates depend on factors ranging from geography to features and whether consumers have bundled phone service with other products, such as internet and cable television service. But in general, standalone landline service (including local and long-distance service) averages somewhere between $30 and $45 per month as a single service.

It isn’t quite that simple, however. As more and more consumers are cutting cords, including cable television service, large communication service providers have responded by creating service bundles that frequently turn landlines into bonuses that are essentially cost-free perks of a larger package. (In these cases, it can actually cost more to cancel a landline than to keep it.)

Landlines still have a few irreplaceable features

The voice communication standard for more than a century, landline telephones are hardwired workhorses. And while their numbers are diminishing, landline technology features several unique characteristics that cannot be fully replaced (or matched) by other alternatives.

  • Electricity independence. Unlike any other form of voice connection, a traditional landline does not require electricity to work. In storms, in blackouts, even when the dog has chewed through the last cell phone charging cord -- the landline will work. Pick up the phone, and as long as the wires themselves are still intact, there will be a dial tone. This always-on, always-connected, grid-independent integrity may be a significant consideration in remote areas and for people who live where severe weather can restrict electrical service for long periods.
  • 911 connectivity, emergency response, and location accuracy. Landlines, keyed as they are to a physical building and address, tell emergency personnel precisely where a call came from, with zero ambiguity. This is not the case with digital alternatives, including cell phones or Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP) technology. Each of these alternatives handles routing to the nation’s 911 emergency service call centers differently; some landline alternatives, such as Google Voice, will not call 911 at all. The FCC offers a thorough exploration of VOIP landline alternatives and the 911 system, including simple steps that cord-cutting 911 callers can take to ensure that emergency responders arrive as quickly as possible at the correct location.
  • Accessory requirements. Some home alarm and fall detection systems still rely on active landline connections for functionality.
  • Clarity and sound quality. The broad consensus is overwhelming: Landlines still win in head-to-head comparisons of sound quality. For people with hearing challenges or those who simply enjoy high fidelity in their conversations without dropped calls, wires still win.

If the long-term cost-saving considerations outweigh sound quality and safety considerations, then choosing a replacement for the landline becomes a matter of personal preference among the options out there in the market today.

Exploring landline alternatives

Cellphone-only

More than half of American households now rely exclusively on wireless phones as their sole means of voice connectivity, and with good reason. Since the debut of the iPhone in 2007, smartphones have engineered ways to slip a whole houseful of appliances into pockets and purses. On-the-go Americans now take along their offices, computers, televisions, music collections, phone book, fax, camera, calculator, and all of their social media followers.

While some people are embracing a radical simplicity and opting for flip phones, it was the widespread adoption of smartphones that heralded the cellular age. Consumers have largely overcome the concerns of the early 2000s (patchy cellular signal strength, limited geographic/network coverage, and lower voice quality than landlines), responding favorably to massive telecom investment in cellular network infrastructure and 4G/5G upgrades. And as market saturation approaches 100%, more low-cost carriers are getting into the wireless game, helping to drive down costs for consumers.

…the vast majority of Americans -- 96% -- own a cell phone of some kind.

A cellphone-only strategy makes intuitive sense. As of 2018, Pew Research reports the vast majority of Americans -- 96% -- own a cell phone of some kind. Eliminating a redundant landline can streamline paperwork and bill-paying.

There’s another potential bonus to replacing a landline to a cell phone: More peace and quiet. While marketers are still legally allowed to ring landlines (unless they’re on the National Do Not Call Registry), cell phones are technically barred from the onslaught of telemarketing because consumers pay for cellular minutes. And while unsolicited calls do slip through on cell phones, spam-blocking apps can help filter and block unsolicited rings -- many before they even reach the device.

Especially for homes that have already “broken the bundle” by eliminating cable TV, ditching a monthly landline bill (and all those annoying incoming spam calls) could be an easy next move.

Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP)

In a nutshell, residential VoIP uses broadband (high-speed) internet connections to make and receive phone calls. Yes, the same connection most homes now use to power everything wi-fi, from computers, televisions and tablets to connected doorbells and virtual assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Home.

VoIP services for the home are offered by local and national providers (Vonage, Voiply, PhonePower, Skype, Google Voice, and more). Compared to $35-50 for a monthly landline, VoIP represents potential opportunities for real savings. With basic rates starting as low as $7-10 per month for unlimited calling services, it’s easy to see the immediate lure of switching from a legacy hardwired voice system. And most vendors also offer reasonably priced additional features if those are important: call waiting, caller ID, Do Not Disturb, voicemail, and more.

Cloud-based VoIP solutions such as Skype and Google Voice are entirely virtual, requiring no additional hardware to “ring” a number via computer or tablet; other services require hardware adapters.

If the goal is a face-to-face conversation, there’s technology for that as well. FaceTime, Skype, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp and Tango are all examples of current video chat solutions that connect people through mobile technology without a wire in sight -- with bonus facial expressions and body language, all delivered over a smartphone, tablet or computer.

Analog Telephone Adapters

Taking the capabilities of VoIP one step farther, ATAs use hardware devices that plug into a broadband modem or computer to create a physical “phone jack” for making and receiving calls via computer. These devices make it possible to hook up additional hardware--such as fax machines and phones--to a vendor’s VoIP service.

Typically, the equipment is sold at a one-time price and service is billed separately at a low monthly or annual fee -- usually a fraction of traditional landline service -- including unlimited local, national, and in some cases international calling. The device itself is generally easy to pack and travel with.

Popular ATAs are MagicJack, the NetTalk Duo, and Ooma Telo; thousands of online reviews and videos explore the high points, features, benefits, and unique aspects of each option.

Do I even need a home phone?

Ultimately, the decision about whether to detach the landline may finally come down to whether it’s outlasted its usefulness in a particular home.

In remote areas with spotty cellular reception, harsh weather, neighbors out of earshot, and/or places where 911 services may not be able to distinguish between a 911 call coming from a condo on the 1st floor or the 98th, landlines may always have a secure position.

But for people in circumstances that allow more flexibility, the tide has turned. In 2018, more than 85 billion outbound spam, scam, fraud, and telemarketing calls rang phones around the globe; increasingly, consumers are deciding they would prefer not to pay for the privilege of hearing that ring in their own home during dinner.