Cell Phone-Only Households on the Rise

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Data from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey, covering the time period from July to December 2015, shows that nearly half (48.3%) of the nearly 20,000 households surveyed use cell phones only and do not have or use landlines in their homes. In fact, the study shows that the percentage of cell phone-only households grew almost 3% from 2014 to 2015, and this trend is expected to continue moving forward.

The survey had many interesting findings regarding the demographics of cell phone-only households, including:

  • Hispanics are most likely to be cell phone-only households (61%), which compares to 44% non-Hispanics white, 49% black , and 48% Asians
  • The Northeast region has the lowest percentage of cell phone-only households (31%) compared to the rest of the country, which averages 51%
  • Those living in cell phone-only households tend to be younger -- 73% of those ages 25-29 live in cell phone-only households compared with only 21% of those in the 65 and older age bracker
  • Cell phone-only households tend to be renters, with roughly 69% of renters reportedly cell phone-only households compared to just over 37% of homeowners

But beyond these demographics, the increase in cell phone-only households also has other societal implications. For example, it could lead to more deaths. Stick with me -- thousands of people die each year even though they have made 911 calls for help. When people make 911 calls from a landline, emergency responders know where the caller is even if he or she is unable to speak. With a cell phone, however, emergency responders often run into problems with location accuracy, and either cannot locate the caller or take more time to find him or her. The problem with 911 calls placed on a cell phone is that it provides only a general location, usually within 100 meters. This can be a problem especially in urban areas in a location like a high-rise apartment since emergency responders will need to know the caller's apartment number.

The FCC estimates that 10,000 lives could be saved by a one-minute reduction in emergency response times -- every second counts. So logically, if cell phone use can delay emergency responders due to inaccurate location information, one could make the connection that an increase in cell phone-only households could mean more delays and less lives saved. A landline, on the other hand, has an Automatic Number Identification/Automatic Location Identification (ANI/ALI) feature that contains a caller's location information, which is delivered to the emergency call center when a landline call is placed.

In 2013, a maid cleaning an apartment is the Upper West Side of Manhattan suffered a stroke. Using her cell phone, she called 911 but her speech was badly slurred and she was unable to tell the center where she was located. It took nearly eight hours for New York's EMT to find her. Fortunately, she survived, but it took extraordinary efforts by the FDNY call center to locate her.

However, there have been improvements in cell phone location accuracy in recent years. Most new cell phones are Phase II compliant, which provides more accurate location information using GPS. And now there are companies, such as RapidSOS, who are developing a "one touch" app that will not only provide an accurate location (the "blue dot" on Google Maps), but also provide pre-programmed information about your health like allergies, medical conditions, etc. (see related article, "RapidSOS Fires Up New Idea for Wireless E911").

Another implication of the rise of cell phone use and demise of landlines is that polling is becoming less accurate and more costly. To explain, polling companies often use auto dialers to place calls to landline numbers that have associated location and demographic information.

However, the rules are different when calling a cell phone number. The FCC has interpreted the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act as prohibiting the use of auto dialers to call cell phones. Instead, the cell phone number must be manually dialed by an actual person. Then they need to wait for the call to be answered. The additional time wasted in the actual dialing of numbers and waiting for a cell phone to be answered can easily double the cost of a survey.

Election polling is even more problematic. Since people tend to keep their cell phone numbers even when they move homes, the area code and exchange numbers do not always match where a person actually resides (and where they are registered to vote). For a national poll, this is not an issue. But for a state poll (i.e. who will win the state of Ohio's electoral votes), pollsters cannot make assumptions based on area codes. When an Ohioan moves to Illinois (and registers to vote), they are likely to keep their Ohio cell phone number. Conversely, you miss those who move to Ohio who have non Ohio area code cell phone numbers.

In conclusion, the ongoing shift to cell phone-only usage has numerous implications, not only in public health, but business opportunities and challenges. Many new innovations and opportunities are only accessible using a smart phone (e.g. Uber). The above two examples above show how existing and older technologies/methodologies are having major issues conforming to the emerging cell phone-only environment.

"SCTC Perspectives" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communications technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.