An Appreciation of The “Home Phone”

Last night on a whim I asked folks on Twitter if they had a home phone – you know, a “hard line” – the k ind of communications device that used to be ubiquitous, but seem increasingly an anachronism these days. The response was overwhelming – only three or four of about 35 responses, about ten percent, said they did, and most of those had them due to bad cel reception or because it makes people feel safe in case of an emergency (the “911 effect”).

The reason I conducted my unscientific poll on the home phone came down to my own experience – my home phone (yes, I have one) rings quite rarely, and when it does, it’s almost always a telemarketer, despite the fact that we’re on the “do not call list.” All of our friends and family know if they want to get in touch, they need to call our cels. Of course, our cels don’t work very well in the hills of Marin County, California, which creates a rather asynchronous sense of community, but more on that in a bit.

I set about writing this post not to bury the home phone, but to celebrate it. The home phone is relatively cheap, incredibly reliable, and – if you buy the right phone – will work for years without replacement. Oh, and far as I can tell, a home phone won’t give you brain cancer.

In a perfect world, the hard line should have become a platform for building out an entire app ecosystem for the home. And yet….it didn’t. Thanks to its monopoly nature and the resultant lack of competition, basic home phone service hasn’t changed much in 20 or so years – we got voice mail, call waiting, and a few other “innovations,” and that’s about it. It’s a dumb technology that is only getting dumber.

Now, I understand why the hard line is dying – mobile telephony is much more convenient for the consumer, and far more profitable for the telephone companies. Mobile phones are not a regulated monopoly (at least, not quite yet), so there’s a lot more innovation going on, at least at the platform level.

But I’m not sure we’ve really thought about what we’re losing as we bid adieu to the home phone (and I’m not talking about 911, which is a mostly solved problem). That one phone number – I can still remember mine from my earliest days growing up – was a shared identity for our family. When it rang, it forced a number of social cohesions to occur between us – we’d either race to answer it first (if we thought it might be for us) or we’d argue over who should get it (if we didn’t). An elaborate system of etiquette and social standards flowered around the home phone: how long a child might be allowed to stay on the phone, how late one could call without being impolite, and of course the dread implications of a late night call which violated that norm.

In short, the home phone was a social, shared, immediate technology, one that existed in rhythm with the physical expression of our lives in our most formative space: Our home. But it’s quickly being replaced by a technology that is private, mobile, asynchronous and virtual. Today, my kids don’t even look up if our home phone rings. But they’ll spend hours up in their room, texting their friends and chatting over the Internet. In other words, the loss of the home phone has sped up the phenomenon Sherry Turkle calls “being alone together.” We may be in the same physical space, but we are not sharing the same kind of social space we used to. And something is lost in that transition.

We may yet might decide there’s value in what the home phone once represented. I believe smart entrepreneurs will see opportunity in the “hard line,” and might help us rediscover the benefits of sharing some of our communications bounded once again in real space and time.

23 thoughts on “An Appreciation of The “Home Phone””

  1. Verizon just informed me that effective May 6,  a landline must accompany my DSL service and I must pay for it. I haven’t had a wired phone in years and don’t want one either, but if I’m paying for it I expect it to work. Long story short, Verizon hasn’t been able to deliver a dial tone although I have a working DSL line in the house. This is an extra layer of dealing with the telco that’s the usual exercise in frustration and bad customer service. A high price to pay indeed to get to what MAY be reliable service. But then again, maybe not. Here in NYC, many landlines didn’t work during, or for months after 9/11.

    1. That is very, very interesting. DSL comes over land lines, of course…but why force you to have dial tone as well? Hmmm. How much more are they making you pay for it?

  2. Nice write up! I agree about the hardline becoming a platform for an app ecosystem at home. As for the technology getting dumber, I think it’s just been sitting on the back burner forgotten in the rush to get everything mobile. Home’s will always exist and with it, a need to communicate to that home. I’m excited to see that there are still people who haven’t forgot about the home phone and it’s place in the family. The current ‘home-phone’ will die soon but it’ll be replaced by technological evolution. We’re working on to bring that evolution into fruition 🙂

    1. I’ve visited Microsoft’s “home of the future” and the tech on display there is pretty darn cool. Good luck with Perch!

  3. I still use my home phone more than my cell. Mainly because the land line minutes are “free”. Because I’m cheap, I have a cell phone with a smaller plan and do most of my yacking at home. I get some odd looks from people when I tell them I prefer them to call my home phone. Frankly, if you aren’t a close friend or family, I don’t want you calling me if I’m out doing something else. To many this makes me a weirdo.

    1. I sense the two may combine in the future – why can’t we have our mobile phone be our home phone when we’re at home, with the benefits of same? Sort of like the way we get our data for ‘free’ when we hook into our home wifi…

      1. Oh, that’s in part what I wanted to say. I sense that, going forward, the home phone and mobile phone will sort of ‘merge’ whereby you have one number that essentially can be forwarded to your home handset or to your cell phone or even your e-mail address on the fly (via phone, Internet, text message, etc.). This already exists to a certain extent with services such as Google Voice and even “call forwarding”, to a lesser extent, but I suspect they’ll be more tightly integrated and it’ll hit mass adoption. Plus, that aspect of Google Voice is limited only to the U.S.


  4. The “home phone” ecosystem has been missed, absolutely correct.  A considerable amount of innovative services could have been created if we continued using the landline for innovation and delayed the move over to mobile.  That’s history though and we can’t alter that but we can alter the future.  My opinion is although missed it the first time around, the level of innovation that is being worked on to converge wireless and wireline networks will deliver to homes the ecosystem we didn’t get.  

    I base that belief on knowing that landlines around the globe are still deployed to homes and that is the sole connection into a communications network.  Even in more technologically mature countries, where the landline isn’t tied to dial tone, the same connection (although we don’t call it home phone service anymore) is used to support broadband (wifi).  As mobile technology gets more mature it will start to converge with the existing connections out there.  Will it bring back the social aspects of a “home phone”, might not, but it will enable the return of an ecosystem we’ll all be able to take part in. 

    Me, my wife, and 3 kids all have mobile phones + home phone service via Vonage.



  5. I gave up my home phone for a while now, and i can’t say i really miss it…maybe only when my cell battery goes dead. For sure Mr. Bell would be disappointment to see that his invention is used today by few of us, however sometimes we need to let go some things so that innovation can happen.

  6. Many apartment buildings can only hook up the front door directories and buzzers to a land line. I’m currently dealing with this and might be required to cave even though I haven’t had a land line since 1996.

    1. That totally sucks. But it shows you something about a hard line that’s important. Same for me – I have to have one to open the front gate!

  7. Hi there, this is Kelly on behalf of AT&T and I wanted to thank you for your advocacy of the home phone. We also see the benefits of having home phone service. From the times when your cell phone isn’t accessible to emergency situations, the home phone provides peace of mind in a household. Power is out? No problem. With a home phone from us, you’re still connected. At the end of the day, we like to think of them as a security blanket with a dial tone. 

  8. Exactly. One of my 2 home land phone lines recently has been down for the past 2 weeks, and we didn’t miss it. I had it in my office, but I’m realizing now it’s been useless because I’m taking most of my calls on the mobile device anyways, and I have a skype tel#. That’s it….B Bye land line.

  9. Another concept attached that you touched on is the concept of a shared identity for the family. The home address is a similar shared location for communication that’s been broken apart somewhat by email. I’ve tried setting up combined a combined email address and phone number (via Google Voice forwarding) for my family in the past, but with little success. I don’t know that the world really wants to call “The Smiths” anymore (did they ever?).

    What I think would be REALLY interesting is services that facilitated modeling this shared identity. What songs do “Dick and Jane” want to listen to right now?, for example.

  10. I had a mustard yellow dialer with about 20 feet of cord to the phone jack and 10ft of coiled line for the headset. Got it from my parents when they bought a summer home in the sticks back in the early eighties (1984 for all you historicals…). I had it until about 2003, when the Mrs thought it was time to get some sort of P.O.S. hand phone.

    I got me another one, but really missed the first. It was like a P-47 of phones. Heavy, took a lot of crap, got beat up, drop from two stories, thrown, and subject to rain, snow, and desert heat of Arizona. Also, a psycho bitch ex-girlfriend who tried to pull the phone from the jack. Did not work, but I did use it to encourage her to leave pretty quick…

    I miss that phone.

  11. John, it’s been awhile since I’ve commented in this space (many years in fact) as, like others, I migrated to other technology and so-called social media blogs (i.e., TechCrunch for one) but with TechCrunch in utter disarray, I find myself a bit of an Internet nomad (which is about right, if you think about it, as that is what the Internet is).

    Anyway, I finally got around to re-reading – and now commenting on – this insightful post. I can definitely say that we still maintain a home phone (albeit of the VoIP variety provided by Shaw Communications, which doesn’t work in the event of a power outage but thanks to local number portability in Canada now, has allowed us to maintain the same number we’ve had since the mid-1980’s) as our primary phone. It’s cheap and reliable like you said, except in our case like in the aforementioned power outages. Plus, why do I need to talk on the phone when I’m “out and about”? That’s what the phone is for at work and at home. 😉

    I had a couple other points I wanted to mention but as it’s been a few weeks have mostly forgot them. So, cancel that. Anyway, I mostly wanted to “check-in”. 🙂


  12. I have to comment on this. There is a major (and expected and accepted) latency (auditory) in cell phones that land lines just don’t have (unless of course you call from landline to overseas landline). Landlines usually have such a low latency that it feels like the person you are speaking to is in the same room as you. I don’t expect cell phones to ever come close to that. I miss landlines.. I still have one but every call out is usually to a person with a cell phone that no longer has a landline.

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