Barely a quarter of Americans still have landlines. Who are they?

June 27, 2023

Do Americans still have landline telephones? The startling answer is that about 73% of U.S. adults lived in a household without a landline at the end of last year —a figure that has tripled since 2010, reports The Washington Post.

Phone usage is tracked in the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), of all things. How did telephones wind up in a health survey? It all began more than two decades ago, when Stephen Blumberg and his colleagues at the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) started fretting and sweating about a newfangled gadget called the cellphone.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducts some of the nation’s most extensive phone surveys—used to produce vital information about rates of immunization, risky behavior, health care use and chronic conditions—and they worried that changes in telephone access could distort their results.

Blumberg, who now runs the NHIS, realized the survey was perfect for tracking changes in American phone habits. Since 1957, the Census Bureau has had full-time staff (827 of them in 2022) crisscrossing the country on behalf of the NCHS, knocking on doors to find folks selected for the interview—including those who don’t have a phone or whose number isn’t listed.

Sure enough, researchers found that phone usage is correlated with health, often in surprising ways.

“People who have cut the cord”—abandoning landlines to rely only on wireless — “are generally more likely to engage in risky behaviors,” Blumberg told the Post. “They’re more likely to binge drink, more likely to smoke and more likely to go without health insurance.” That’s true even when researchers control for age, sex, race, ethnicity, and income.

Every six months, as new interviews roll in, Blumberg and his colleagues release an update. The latest shows that landlines are far more common among homeowners (34% have them) than among renters (15%), while Hispanic Americans (20%) are less likely to have them than their White or Black friends (30.5%).

Only 2% of U.S. adults use only landlines. Another 3% mostly rely on landlines and 1% percent don’t have phones at all. The largest group of holdouts, of course, are folks 65 and older. That’s the only demographic for which households with landlines still outnumber wireless-only households.

With the help of NORC at the University of Chicago, the NCHS also models household phone usage for all 50 states, albeit at a slight lag (the latest figures are from 2020).

Landlines have been left behind most enthusiastically by folks in Idaho and places like it— rural, rootless, mountainous Western states—as well as Oklahoma, which has a decent claim to being both Western and mountainous; and Mississippi, which doesn’t. The states that cling to their physical phone connections are New York and places like it—dense, deeply rooted Northeastern states.

But landlines aren’t what they used to be. As of 2021, fewer than one-third of landline households still had what’s technically known as plain old telephone service—the copper wires that carry their own power and work during blackouts. Most landline homes now have VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), which usually sends calls through your internet connection.

In 2019, the Federal Communications Commission scrapped regulations that required telecommunications carriers to run copper wires to every home. The three-year transition period ended last year, and carriers are beginning to scrap the plain old systems and push customers to adopt cheaper-to-maintain, easier-to-upsell digital technologies.

Research contact: @washingtonpost