Make the Right Call

How Pay Phones and House­hold Lan­d­lines Might End Up Be­ing Your Life­lines Dur­ing an Emer­gency

RECOIL OFFGRID - - Contents - By Richard Duarte

How Pay Phones and House­hold Lan­d­lines Might End Up Be­ing Your Life­line Dur­ing an Emer­gency

Land­line phones and pub­lic tele­phone booths were once as com­mon as type­writ­ers, tran­sis­tor ra­dios, and cor­ner mail­boxes. Fast-for­ward 30 years, how­ever, and ev­ery­thing about how we com­mu­ni­cate has dras­ti­cally changed. To­day, pay phones and land­line phones are on the en­dan­gered species list, while the use of cel­lu­lar and In­ter­net­based phone net­works has ex­ploded.

In Jan­uary 2017, a re­port from the Pew Re­search Cen­ter con­cluded that the vast ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans (95 per­cent) now own a cell­phone of some kind. With so many cell phones, and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of high-speed in­ter­net com­mu­ni­ca­tions, are pay phones and land­line phones re­ally just a relic of the past? And can the wired tech­nol­ogy of the last cen­tury be of any prac­ti­cal use in an era dom­i­nated by smart de­vices and the ever-grow­ing avail­abil­ity of wire­less comms?

Pay phones and land­line phones may be go­ing the way of the di­nosaurs, but if you know where to look, there’s still tremen­dous value to be found in this dated tech­nol­ogy.

In this ar­ti­cle, we dis­cuss how the land­line phones that many folks con­sider to be dead and buried may ac­tu­ally still have quite a bit more to of­fer, es­pe­cially when the high-tech modern com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tems we rely on go dark.

The Wire­less Rev­o­lu­tion

It all started on April 3, 1973. On that date, Mo­torola en­gi­neer Martin Cooper made the world’s first mo­bile phone call. The his­toric call was re­port­edly made to Mo­torola’s main com­peti­tor at Bell Sys­tems to let them know that Mo­torola had done it first — it must have been some con­ver­sa­tion.

Ten years later, the world’s first mo­bile phone hit the mar­ket at a cost of $3,995 (roughly $5,800 in to­day’s money). Few peo­ple at that time could have ever imag­ined just how sig­nif­i­cant that first call re­ally was, and how it set in mo­tion the events that’d change ev­ery­thing about how we com­mu­ni­cate.

To­day, lo­cat­ing an ac­tual land­line phone or even a pub­lic pay phone is get­ting more and more dif­fi­cult. Mo­bile phones and wire­less de­vices are ubiq­ui­tous, and they've all but re­placed their wired pre­de­ces­sors. How­ever, that smart­phone of yours may wind up as lit­tle more than a pa­per­weight if the grid goes down.

The Achilles’ Heel

Tech­nol­ogy can be a won­drous thing. It of­fers com­fort, con­ve­nience, and a mul­ti­tude of amaz­ing fea­tures. But it can also foster a po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous de­pen­dency. Al­most 45 years since that first mo­bile phone call, many peo­ple have been lulled into ex­clu­sive reliance on wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tions and mo­bile de­vices for all of their daily needs. Smart­phones are now used to not only make phone calls, but to send and re­ceive all sorts of per­sonal and fi­nan­cial data.

This un­de­ni­ably con­ve­nient tech­nol­ogy is of­ten taken com­pletely for granted and is ex­pected to func­tion flaw­lessly and with­out in­ter­rup­tion, no mat­ter the cir­cum­stances. Few peo­ple ac­tu­ally con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity that cell ser­vice may one day be in­ter­rupted by a nat­u­ral or man­made dis­as­ter. Fewer still have any backup plans should their wire­less de­vices stop work­ing. This un­re­al­is­tic reliance tends to cre­ate a false sense of con­fi­dence and can po­ten­tially re­sult in very se­ri­ous con­se­quences.

One re­cent ex­am­ple is Trop­i­cal Storm Har­vey, which made land­fall along the Texas coast on Au­gust 25, 2017, bring­ing winds in ex­cess of 100 mph. Ac­cord­ing to the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion (FCC), Har­vey’s im­pact re­sulted in wide­spread cell black­outs, in­clud­ing the dis­rup­tion of 17 emer­gency call cen­ters and 320 cel­lu­lar sites. In a few Texas coun­ties, black­outs af­fected more than 80 per­cent of the cell sites. (In Aransas County, Texas, for ex­am­ple, 18 out of 19 cell sites re­port­edly went down.)

When the stakes are this high, over­re­liance on wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tions can have se­ri­ous con­se­quences. En­ter the land­line.

What’s a Land­line?

Dur­ing the ma­jor­ity of the 20th cen­tury, the only way for most peo­ple to place or re­ceive a tele­phone call was to use a land­line phone — pub­lic or pri­vate, th­ese de­vices could be found just about ev­ery­where.

A land­line tele­phone uses cop­per wiring to make and re­ceive phone calls, as op­posed to a cel­lu­lar phone that uses ra­dio waves. Land­line phones can be hard­wired (teth­ered) di­rectly to the ded­i­cated phys­i­cal phone line or can use a cord­less hand­set that’s con­nected wire­lessly to a fixed base unit nearby that’s then hard­wired into the land­line.

In a nut­shell, the land­line be­tween the home and the phone com­pany con­sists of a pair of cop­per wires. The phone com­pany sup­plies the power needed to op­er­ate the phone, as­sum­ing that the land­line phone isn’t cord­less. This is why land­line phones of­ten con­tinue to work even dur­ing se­vere weather and wide­spread power out­ages — they have their own power sup­ply. If the phone was cord­less, then you still needed an in­de­pen­dent power sup­ply to power the oper­a­tion of the cor­re­spond­ing base unit.

To­day, many home phones (even the ones with wires) are con­nected not to an ac­tual land­line, but to the in­ter­net — a cheaper al­ter­na­tive. This is called Voice Over In­ter­net Pro­to­col (VOIP). In­ter­net phone plans of­ten pro­vide ac­cess to both do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional call­ing op­tions; you can keep your ex­ist­ing phone num­ber. The phone op­er­ates in much the same way as its land­line pre­de­ces­sors — you even get a dial tone. How­ever, there’s one ma­jor dif­fer­ence — calls are placed over an in­ter­net con­nec­tion. In or­der for the phone to work, you must have elec­tric­ity and a fully func­tional in­ter­net con­nec­tion in your home or of­fice.

In com­par­i­son to cell phones and VOIP, a land­line phone is al­most bul­let­proof. Even if the grid power in your neigh­bor­hood goes down, the land­line phone will con­tinue to work so long as the tele­phone com­pany's in­de­pen­dent power source stays live; this is a huge ad­van­tage over a phone that re­lies on grid power and the in­ter­net. Pub­lic land­line pay phones op­er­ate in much the same way.

Pub­lic Pay Phones - Pay As You Go

By some es­ti­mates, there are now fewer than 500,000 pay phones in the en­tire United States. While th­ese relics of the 20th cen­tury are be­com­ing a very rare sight, if you hap­pen upon one, you should be pre­pared to pay.

Most of us are ac­cus­tomed to di­al­ing a num­ber and get­ting con­nected with no con­cerns about costs or with mak­ing im­me­di­ate pay­ment. Pub­lic pay phones, such as those found in train sta­tions, gov­ern­ment build­ings, and ho­tels, charge vary­ing rates de­pend­ing on the type of call you make and the length of the con­ver­sa­tion. Some of th­ese rates can be much more ex­pen­sive than what a sim­i­lar phone call would cost on a cel­lu­lar phone, pri­vate land­line, or in­ter­net-based phone. Make sure to con­firm those costs be­fore plac­ing your call. To make pay­ment for the call, there are a num­ber of op­tions:

Cash/coin Pick up the re­ceiver, drop in the coins, and dial the de­sired phone num­ber when you hear the dial tone. (And hope the phone doesn’t eat your change.)

Credit cards Can be used to make long-dis­tance calls on lan­d­lines or pub­lic pay phones. Rates can be very ex­pen­sive for th­ese calls.

Pre­paid call­ing cards Th­ese cards are avail­able for pur­chase for a flat fee and can be used to make long-dis­tance calls us­ing an ac­cess num­ber and a PIN that’s printed on the back of the card.

Col­lect calls Also known as a re­verse-charge call, this is when the call­ing party re­quests that the per­son be­ing called pays for the charges. This type of call re­quires ap­proval from the pay­ing party and can be ex­pen­sive.

Toll-free num­bers Calls to toll-free num­bers don’t re­quire pay­ment. Here’s a sur­vival tip: In­di­vid­u­als can ob­tain a toll-free num­ber for them­selves (i.e., 888, 877, or 866). A toll-free num­ber means oth­ers can call you for no cost to the caller. This may come in handy if fam­ily or other mem­bers of your in­ner cir­cle are try­ing to reach you dur­ing a cri­sis.

Re­mem­ber that you can al­ways place an emer­gency call to “911” or to an op­er­a­tor “0” at no charge from any pay phone in the U.S.

Note: In­ter­na­tional calls from the U.S. work much the same. To phone an­other coun­try, dial 011, the nu­mer­i­cal code for the coun­try you’re call­ing, and the phone num­ber. Pay­ment for th­ese calls can be made by one of the meth­ods shown above.

Sur­vival Ready

Un­der­stand­ing the dif­fer­ences be­tween land­line and cel­lu­lar phones makes it easy to see the dis­tinct ben­e­fits and ad­van­tages. Since you most likely al­ready have a cell phone, con­sider ad­ding a land­line phone to your sur­vival plan for ad­di­tional com­mu­ni­ca­tions op­tions. The fol­low­ing is a list of our top five tips for in­cor­po­rat­ing land­line phones into your sur­vival plan­ning:

Add a land­line phone. Call your lo­cal provider and find out if true land­line ser­vice is still avail­able in your area and how much it will cost. Re­mem­ber you’ll also need a land­line phone with a phys­i­cal cord that’ll con­nect to the tele­phone wires com­ing into your home. Ad­ding a cord­less phone to a land­line de­feats the pur­pose of hav­ing a land­line, since cord­less phones still re­quire elec­tric­ity and/or a recharge­able bat­tery to power the base unit.

Here’s where it gets tricky. Since in­ter­net phones are of­ten plugged into tra­di­tional-look­ing phone jacks, it’s some­times dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish be­tween a true land­line and a VOIP phone. If you’re in doubt, call your ser­vice provider and ask, or look at your phone/in­ter­net bill. One sure way to find out is to cut all elec­tri­cal power go­ing into your home at the main cir­cuit breaker panel. If the phone still works, even with all the power cut off, it’s a true land­line.

If the power goes out and you’re us­ing an in­ter­net phone ser­vice, you’re big-time SOL. A true land­line has its own power from the phone com­pany, which is used to en­er­gize the phone it­self and to trans­mit the call sig­nal. With an in­ter­net phone, you need elec­tric­ity to op­er­ate the mo­dem and the in­ter­net con­nec­tion. It’s con­fus­ing be­cause AT&T, for ex­am­ple, sets up your in­ter­net phone ser­vice so that it’s routed through the home’s mo­dem, but it’s still wired into the tele­phone cop­per wires within the home.

To any ca­sual ob­server, it’s dif­fi­cult to tell that it’s not a land­line since the phone plugs into the wall jacks and looks just like a nor­mal land­line phone. But if the power goes out — that’s it. You’re toast and can’t use the land­line.

On a true land­line, the phone com­pany runs cop­per wires to your house that con­nect di­rectly into the phone (with­out a mo­dem to trans­late au­dio sig­nals into data to trans­mit over the in­ter­net). This phone will work come hell or high wa­ter, as long as the sig­nal from the phone com­pany is in­tact and the cop­per wires aren’t dam­aged or cut. Al­though you may have an older home built with a phone jack that was once pow­ered by a cop­per wire setup, that doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean your cur­rent phone sys­tem still op­er­ates through the orig­i­nal in­fra­struc­ture. Again, call your home phone provider to check.

Get a com­mu­nity land­line. If you can’t af­ford the monthly cost of a land­line all by your­self, con­sider a com­mu­nity land­line to be shared among neigh­bors. This ar­range­ment al­lows var­i­ous peo­ple to pool their re­sources and get one land­line to be shared among all the pay­ing neigh­bors. If the cost is split among a small group, it be­comes way more af­ford­able, while still pro­vid­ing ben­e­fits to the en­tire group.

Do your re­search. Do a search of your im­me­di­ate area for pub­lic land­line pay phones and mark the lo­ca­tions on a map. Know­ing where th­ese phones are in ad­vance of a dis­as­ter will save you time and ef­fort at a later date. Start your search in the likely places — train sta­tions, li­braries, air­ports, gov­ern­ment build­ings, bus ter­mi­nals, and schools. Just make sure that th­ese lo­ca­tions will be ac­ces­si­ble dur­ing a cri­sis. Don’t for­get to look in other in­de­pen­dently owned places — bars, restau­rants, gas sta­tions, and con­ve­nience stores.

You can also do an in­ter­net search for “near­est pay phone” and ori­ent to your ad­dress. Some­times th­ese searches can be out­dated, so if you’re search­ing some­where nearby, scout them out ahead of time to en­sure they’re still in the lo­ca­tion iden­ti­fied by your on­line search and fully func­tional.

AT&T or other providers own their pay phones. They place them based on how much profit they might make.

It’s up to the phone com­pany and prop­erty owner to keep them in ser­vice. In many cases, pay phones have been re­moved at city fa­cil­i­ties over the years be­cause they were no

longer used — hence no profit. AT&T and other com­pa­nies re­quired a cer­tain profit from the pay phones and forced prop­erty own­ers to pay if the phones on their prop­erty didn’t pro­duce. Be­cause of that, many prop­erty own­ers are re­mov­ing them per­ma­nently.

Pur­chase a call­ing card. A call­ing card will al­low you to use a pub­lic pay phone to make calls (lo­cal or long dis­tance) with­out hav­ing to keep a pocket full of change or a credit card. A call­ing card can be use­ful even when us­ing an­other per­son’s land­line phone, since you can call any­where with­out wor­ry­ing about the charges.

Main­tain a phys­i­cal list of names and phone num­bers. Speed di­al­ing is ef­fi­cient and very con­ve­nient, but it also makes it re­ally easy not to have to re­mem­ber phone num­bers. Main­tain a list of im­por­tant tele­phone num­bers and have var­i­ous copies as backup. Like older phones them­selves, us­ing an ad­dress book to main­tain cur­rent con­tact info or mak­ing reg­u­lar pri­nouts will come in very handy when you need it.

More Bad News for Land­line Phones

If you live in any of the 21 states (Alabama, Arkansas, Cal­i­for­nia, Florida, Ge­or­gia, In­di­ana, Illi­nois, Kansas, Ken­tucky, Louisiana, Michi­gan, Mis­sis­sippi, Mis­souri, Ne­vada, North Carolina, Ok­la­homa, Ohio, South Carolina, Ten­nessee, Texas, and Wis­con­sin) where AT&T is the pri­mary tele­phone ser­vice provider, you may soon need to say good­bye to your land­line phone ser­vice.

Re­port­edly, AT&T has been spear­head­ing ef­forts for leg­is­la­tion to end land­line phone ser­vice in those mar­kets. Ac­cord­ing to re­ports from the Chicago Tri­bune, law­mak­ers in 20 of th­ese states have al­ready voted to al­low AT&T to end land­line ser­vice in their re­spec­tive states.

While AT&T will still need FCC ap­proval be­fore it can ter­mi­nate land­line ser­vice, there’s a good chance that land­line cus­tomers in those states may soon face a choice be­tween up­grad­ing their ser­vice to more modern al­ter­na­tives or face dis­con­nec­tion.

Op­po­nents to AT&T’s ef­forts to elim­i­nate lan­d­lines in­clude groups like AARP (a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that helps peo­ple over 50 years of age). AARP rep­re­sen­ta­tives claim that the bill will be es­pe­cially harm­ful to the el­derly, and the or­ga­ni­za­tion says it in­tends to fight the law at the na­tional level.

While it’s un­clear how any of th­ese ef­forts will af­fect the even­tual out­come, or when ac­tual land­line ser­vice elim­i­na­tion may take place, main­tain­ing an ag­ing land­line net­work is ex­pen­sive, and it’s un­likely that other providers will step in to of­fer tra­di­tional land­line ser­vices at any­thing close to af­ford­able rates. Cur­rent land­line ser­vice av­er­ages about $50 per month, de­pend­ing on the mar­ket and the plan’s fea­tures and us­age.


Cut­ting cords changed ev­ery­thing, and go­ing back to de­vices teth­ered by wires seems unimag­in­able. And while few peo­ple will ever give up their mo­bile de­vices, hav­ing a land­line phone adds a very use­ful and ef­fec­tive com­po­nent to your over­all sur­vival strat­egy and plan­ning. Stay safe and be pre­pared.

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