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Cutting the land line has its risks
Cell phones are on display at the AT&T store on Jesse Jewell Parkway in Gainesville. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

In just a month or two, Melissa Bohm will join the millions of Americans who have an active cell phone in their homes — but no land line.

When her mother moves her business out of Bohm's Cherokee County home, she said, she's planning on dropping her land line service, opting for just the monthly cell phone charge.

And Bohm is not alone.

Across Northeast Georgia and across the country, households are either cutting their phone service to a terrestrial phone or keeping a phone line but only using it for an Internet connection. Overall, 23 percent of U.S. homes have only cell phones, up from 11 percent in 2006, according to a recent poll by the Centers for Disease Control.

The same poll also noted that households make the decision to keep or ditch the land line based more on age and where they live rather than income, and the proportion of wireless-only households at all income levels continues to grow.

In fact, in the past three years, the proportion of wireless-only households has doubled. And according to the survey, homes with only cell phones are also more likely to:

Be between the ages of 18 to 34 (and especially between the ages of 25 to 29).

Live in the South of the Midwest

Be adults who either live alone or with other unrelated adults

While mobile phone companies won't reveal how many customers are downsizing their phone lines, they do acknowledge the decline in land line customers.

"Though it is a bit more layered than just a wireless phone exodus," said Bob Elek, a spokesman with Verizon. "Land lines were once the only option for widespread voice communications; today there are a variety of competitive choices for consumers. Cable companies offer cable phone service. Voice-over Internet protocol providers like Skype and Vonage abound and wireless carriers are also in the mix as an option for consumers."

Dawn Benton, director of communications for AT&T, said the decline in land line customers is also seen as an opportunity for cell phone companies to offer new services.

"There has been a decline in the number of homes with phone access lines for some time now, as wireless usage has increased," she said. "That's why we offer a range of options for consumers. We're changing with our customers to keep them connected ... AT&T customers have choices, and we're working hard to meet the unique needs of our customers — whether it's through traditional home phone service, leading wireless services or, for many households, both."

Many cell phone users in the Gainesville area note that they keep their land lines, either for making more reliable calls at home or for 911 calls from a land line.

Claudia Cisneros, sales representative at a Sprint store on Dawsonville Highway in Gainesville, said she hasn't noticed any customers who come in without a land line.

Business has been brisk recently, she said, because of Christmas. But rather than slimming down their service, they are beefing up what they already have.

"I have not heard any of the customers say that they are dropping their land line, or keeping it just for (calling 911)," she said.

Instead, she said, many customers are getting new lines for their kids.

Flowery Branch resident Jay Oliver said his two kids — and the thought of losing cell phone service if he ever had to call 911 - keep his land line around.

"I use the land line when I'm at home, except for long distance," he said, adding that sometimes the phone's battery is dead and someone needs to get in touch with him.

"When I'm at home, I'll use the land line."

And it's a smart idea to keep the land line around in case of an emergency, according to Marty Nix, public safety director for Hall County.

When you call 911 from a mobile phone, Nix said, the phone call can be plotted on a map to try to trace where it is originating. The county is constantly testing the various cell phone companies to ensure the information is up-to-date, but still, Nix said, it's not a fail safe method.

"An apartment complex," he said, noting one place where it's impossible to pinpoint exactly where a cellular call is coming from. "If someone's breaking into an apartment and the phone call goes dead ... It's going to take a lot longer to find out where that person's at, whereas if we get a call from a land line, if emergency persons get a call from a land line, they're going to (know)."

The issue is even worse for prepaid cell phones.

If the time has expired on the phone, they are still able to call 911. But if the caller hangs up or the call is dropped, Nix said, the 911 operators can't call the phone back — because the phone's minutes have expired, it can't take incoming calls.

And some phone companies use satellites to triangulate your location, he said, which is fine — until you make a call from a parking deck or inside a building, and then the only location the 911 center receives is the nearest cell tower.

Problem is, the calls coming in to the 911 center from cell phones are steadily rising.

"We have seen an increase over the past five years, and we have seen the trend of people going to cell phones exclusively," Nix said.

Last month, 58 percent of the calls coming in to Hall's 911 center were from cell phones, Nix said. The highest number was August, he said, when 62 percent of the calls were from mobile phones.

That shows a steady rise from just five years ago, when the average number of calls coming in from cell phones was about 50 percent.

Yet the number of households effectively reachable only by cell has also continued to rise, hitting 37 percent this year. That includes those who only have cells and those who also have a land line but seldom take calls on it, often because it is plugged into a computer.

Bohm's friend, Rocky Rhodes, said by her cutting the land line, the family saves about $60 to $70 a month — and also cuts all the calls from telemarketers.

But even so, Nix said, the savings aren't necessarily going to give you peace of mind.

"I would recommend people have a land line. I'd rather err on the side of caution," Nix said. "It's just not the most reliable way to call 911, even though most of the time you can call 911 and we can find you. But it's not as accurate as a land line."

The Associated Press contributed to this story