Shrinking Number Of Landlines Is 'Least of Telecoms' Worries'

While it's hardly news that cell phone usage is rising and landline usage is declining, the latest Mediamark Research (MRI) "Survey of the American Consumer" data reveal the extent of the shift, quantify the demographic trends driving it and highlight at least one milestone.

That milestone: The percentage of people living in households with one or more cell phones is now 86.2%--exceeding the percentage living in households with landlines, 84.5%, for the first time.

Of course, many--72.2%, according to MRI--still have both.

Households with at least one cell phone overtook those having a landline sometime between October 2006 and April of this year. (MRI's twice-annual survey waves, involving in-home interviews with about 13,000 U.S. adults, start in March and September each year).

Arguably, however, the more notable data are these: During the past two years, the cell phone-only population grew from 8.8% to 14% of the overall population (it was at 12.4% last year), while the landline-only segment declined from 18% to 12.3% of the overall population (it was at 14.5% last year).



Further, that 14% cell-only population represents a net increase equaling 12.8% of the adult population since October 2000, when just 1.2% of adults were living in cell-only households. And the 12.3% now in landline-only households represent a precipitous net decrease of 27.3% from the 43.9% landline-only population of 2000.

Bottom line: Over a quarter of the adult population migrated out of the landline-only segment in the space of six years.

Nearly all moved to having both cells and landlines. In fact, the segment having both services has shown net growth equaling 19.9% of the overall population since 2000.

However, the "both" growth has now slowed to a crawl--increasing by only 0.7% during the past two years (it was at 71.5% in 2005)--meaning that this segment (as well as the tiny 1.4% "phoneless" segment) has stabilized.

MRI points out that the "both" segment may be unsustainable over time, as the quality-of-service differential dwindles and lower-income consumers, in particular, increasingly opt to drop landlines. (Even now, the "both" segment is dominated by the more affluent: The segment has an average household income of nearly $67,000, versus $31,000 for the balance of the population.)

The data confirms that the reverse usage trends for mobile and landline services are being driven primarily by younger consumers. Compared to the 14% of the overall population that's cell-only, nearly a third (32.3%) of 18- to024-year-olds, and 26.7% of 25- to-34-year-olds, are now cell-only.

Live-alone status also plays a role, since single-person households have less need for a landline, and have to bear the costs alone: 27% of all consumers 18 or older who fall into the "single, never married" census classification, and 17.4% of all single-person households (regardless of age) are now cell-only.

But age trumps living alone as a driver. Adults of all ages living in single-person households are 24% more likely to be cell-only than the general population, but 57% of 18- to-24-year-olds living alone are cell-only, making them four times as likely to go this route as the average adult.

Heavily landline/wireline network-invested telecoms are seeking to minimize self-cannibalism by linking landline and wireless phone services (including introduction of unified land/wireless voicemail) and Internet services.

"Although the number of wireline households has been shrinking, many of the same telephone companies losing wirelines have the chance to recoup because they also own the largest cell phone carriers, and they're additionally beginning to explore technological and billing capabilities to blend residential wireline and wireless accounts," sums up Dan O'Shea, editor of the online newsletter publisher FierceTelecom.

"Cincinnati Bell, though not the largest, has been somewhat ahead of the curve in linking all of these, but this seems to be the direction that all of the large telecoms are going in," agrees Kevin Fitchard, senior editor for Telephony.

Fitchard adds that telecoms are also feeling the heat from WiFi capabilities that have enabled offerings like T-Mobile's "Hotspot@Home"--unlimited local and domestic long-distance phone service for everyone in a household at a very low monthly fee within the home hotspot, and phones that automatically switch to cellular mode and a regular minutes plan outside of the home hotspot. "T-Mobile is telling people they don't need a landline anymore for coverage or quality reasons--they can get it all at much lower cost," he says.

And more competition is coming up over the next several years.

"Sure, the telecoms see that the wave of wireless-only users is growing and that mobility is their future--which is why, for instance, AT&T just introduced the youth-oriented 'Your Seamless World' campaign," says Michael Megalli, partner in Group 1066, a branding and marketing firm.

"But voiceover IP is going to intensify the pressure going forward," he stresses.

"Consumers, especially the younger segments, are going to be using Skype and a variety of other Net-based communications options. Let's not forget that Google could be entering the wireless data arena, which is when the trouble will really begin. Landlines are really the least of the telecom's worries--it's the new entrants into the mobile/wireless space that are going to be the big long-term issue."

For AT&T, bundling landline/wireless phone and Internet services--and offering digital satellite TV via its partnership with the DISH Network--is an interim strategy as it rolls out the fiber optic-based U-verse system capable of doing it all, including TV/entertainment.

But Megalli says that telecoms dropped the ball by allowing the cable companies to establish "data pipes" into homes. "The telecoms were too slow and, by letting cable companies take the data business, they also gave them the telecommunications business," he maintains. "So the AT&T's of the world are trying to figure it out. They're trying to undo the mistakes they made."

All of which is intensified by what Megalli views as telecoms' biggest challenge of all: weak brand relevance. "AT&T and Verizon are two of the top 10 advertising spenders, but certainly among the weakest of those top-spending brands," he says. "Everybody does business with them, but nobody likes it."

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