“You still have a landline?” I get this question a lot. Well, OK maybe not a lot, but definitely every time someone asks for my number and I offer them both my home and cellphone as choices. I get it — as someone who insists on maintaining a home phone, I’m part of shrinking cohort of people who think these things are a good idea. With cord-cutting on the rise in general, and with budget-conscious consumers looking for more ways to save a few dollars every month, the landline is viewed by many to be superfluous. But despite the fact that your smartphone has become your everything device, if you’re a parent, you need a home phone. Here’s why….
Who’s watching the kids?
At some point — though the age seems to vary wildly from one set of parents to another — you’ll be ready to leave your precious offspring in the hands of another. For most of us, it’s a babysitter, typically a neighbourhood teen who is both responsible, and critically, available. That teen will have their own phone, right? Of course! What self-respecting teen doesn’t have one? So not only will you likely make the arrangements via text message (er, Snapchat?) that’s probably how you’ll check in with them during the evening to see how everything’s going. But what happens when, an hour into the gig, that responsible teen dig into their back pocket and discovers to their horror that they’ve left their phone at home?
Sound far-fetched? I would have said so too, given that my teen kids suffer palpitations when separated from their tech for even ten minutes, and yet that’s exactly what happened recently when my son went to babysit for neighbours. Normally this would be a minor inconvenience, but as I’m sure you’ve guessed, the family he was sitting for had no home phone. My kid gets top marks for being resourceful enough to fire up his laptop, and use the home’s Wi-Fi to iMessage me, to ask my daughter to go find and deliver his phone to him (she was the only one at home). But no amount of cleverness on his part changes the fact that he had no way to contact the parents, and they had no way to contact him. Worse still, had an emergency cropped up — the kind you hope never happens — he would have had no way to call 911.
Forgetful teens aren’t your only nemesis in this situation. Cellphone batteries can die unexpectedly, and a compatible charger isn’t always on hand. Grandparents are the best sitters of all if you’re lucky enough to have them nearby, but today’s 70-somethings don’t always carry a phone with them.
It’s not always about the caregivers. If your kids are in that magic middle-ground of 10-12 years old, you might feel they’re perfectly capable of being left in the house alone for an hour or two while you pick up a sibling from a playdate or run out to grab some last-minute groceries. But do they have their own phones? Studies suggest that while a child will get their first phone at the age of 10, on average, the actual number of kids who get them remains between 25-50%, until later in life. When I was growing up, my sister and I were drilled on how to call for help in an emergency, but that’s hard to do when there’s no phone to call from.
A lot of folks are under the impression that as long as they leave their existing home phones plugged into the wall outlets, they’ll be able to make 911 calls, even if they’ve cancelled their phone line. That ability is called a soft dial tone, and it will work as long as the phone line you used to have was run through the old, twisted-pair copper line technology, and as long as your telco supports it. In Canada, unlike the U.S., there is no requirement that telcos offer this service. If your last home phone line ran over fibre optic, or over cable, this won’t work either, because the equipment needed to run these lines is usually returned to the provider when you cancel.
Do I have to pay for a landline?
No, there are some other options. Voice-over-IP (VoIP) services like Ooma, Vonage, and MagicJack, give you local, long-distance, and other calling features, often for the one-time cost of their hardware (from $50 to $150) plus a monthly tax (usually less than $5). What these services all have in common is that they use your home internet connection instead of a dedicated telephone line.
Low cost is the obvious benefit, but there are also some caveats: Call quality can vary greatly, and is affected by everything from the speed of your internet connection to your physical distance from the VoIP provider’s servers. These services need constant power too, and won’t be available during a blackout unless you buy a backup battery that can power your modem, router, VoIP terminal, and a cordless phone if that’s what you use. Some VoIP providers let you update their systems with your physical address so that 911 operators can see where you live, but this system is not foolproof. With any VoIP solution, there’s a risk that your location will be unavailable (in which case the operator will need to ask), or that it’s incorrect (much worse, because fire, police, or ambulance could be dispatched to the wrong place, wasting precious minutes). The takeaway here is that, if your main reason for having a home phone is for emergency calls, VoIP services may not be your best bet.
In Ontario, Bell offers a basic landline for as little as $15 a month as part of its $99 bundle with internet and TV. If you want both of these other services anway, it can be a cost-effective way to keep a home phone line.
Who’s calling, please?
At the risk of earning myself some serious eye-rolls from both parents and kids alike, I think it’s worth mentioning a side benefit of having a home phone: Actually teaching your kids how to speak on the phone. For the average teen and pre-teen — heck, even for the average millennial or 30-something — making and receiving calls are some of the lowest priority activities on a smartphone. But learning how to communicate clearly on the phone is still an essential life skill. Even in the most forward-thinking, high-tech companies, speaking to people remotely is a daily occurrence, and still one of the best ways I know to diffuse the anger or frustration caused by a poorly worded email or text. But how do you coach your kids on this skill if they never use a phone to talk? Home phones have the benefit of being a one-stop contact point for an entire family. Instead of having friends and family call you on your smartphone, and then handing that to your kid to speak, it’s a much better learning experience for them to pick up the call on a home phone. Bonus points awarded if they ignore Call Display and respond with the generic “Hello,” instead of ‘Hi Grandma!”
So before you pull the plug on a home phone, ask yourself if maybe it’s worth keeping around, at least while the kids are still young.