Should I keep landline for emergencies?

A picture of an old fashioned desk phone with a rotary dial.
Should I keep landline for emergencies?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am keeping a landline in case there is an emergency, but this landline is getting so many robocalls that I have to take it “off-the-hook” at night to silence it. I like the idea of having a backup phone in my house, but it is an extra expense. And, assuming I keep this landline for emergencies is there a way that I can stop it from ringing with so many annoying spam calls? DeeAnn, Tiburon

Dear DeeAnn: Your question has two parts:  should I keep a landline for emergencies if normal communication channels fail? Second, how do I reduce the annoyance of robocalls on a landline phone? People often confuse a landline with a different type of phone that plugs into the wall. It’s called the VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol). But, I checked back with you, and you have a hard-wired phone that is cabled to a telecomm company like AT&T or Verizon.

A number of households still maintain hard wired phones because they expect them to operate during a failure of the power grid. Hard wired phones are powered by a low voltage system that is separate from the electrical grid. But during the last big power outage in Marin, some of these phones still failed.  Here are some tidbits from an earlier column: 

2019….all over

“In Northern California, many households keep two phones: there is the regular cell-phone, and then a separate landline for emergencies. The landline is e`xpected to be the backup when cell towers go down. It is the lifeline to receive a call or reach ‘911’.

During the October 2019 fires, these landlines often failed…alongside with the PG&E electrical service. It turns out that ‘POTS’, which stands for Plain Old Telephone Service; i.e., the landline connected to a phone jack, is not as reliable as it used to be. Here’s why:

With the growth of the Internet, fiber optic lines have replaced many copper telephone cables. But, fiber optics don’t have the same ability as copper lines to maintain service indefinitely when there is a power failure Before the Internet, telephone companies routed calls with paired copper cable, a method that required almost no external power, except at the Central Switching Station.

Under everyday conditions, fiber optics are the backbone for calling and the Internet. They out-perform copper wire because of their lightning speed, capacity, and cost. However, fiber optics (and coaxial cable) depend on electricity to power the system. When there is a complete electricity shutdown the fiber optics fail, unless there is an external generator for electrical backup.” 


Your question reminds me how far we have traveled, and how far we have regressed when it comes to telephony. The Bell network was engineered to be 99.9% reliable, and was trusted to perform across disasters like an earthquake or fire. The technology was simple but robust. Now, the underlying network is different and it is nearly impossible to build in the same degree of reliability.

So, if you want to stay connected and maintain two-way communications during an emergency- my personal recommendation might be to get a citizen band radio. The CB technology does not rely on cellular service or fiber optics,  and is more likely to be operative when other telecomm options fail. That said, you will need to have a backup power source, perhaps batteries. At the other end of the spectrum (literally) you might investigate a subscription to a satellite phone. These devices are expensive, but used in rugged, out-of-door conditions and operate independently of the phone network.

Robocall cocktail

As for the second part of your question- about the robocalls. They were not “invented” until the 1980s when computers became relatively inexpensive and software became accessible. They were initially deployed for political polling.  I personally worked for telecoms and they developed security countermeasures. Among them were unlisted phone numbers (for which you paid a fee), Caller ID, and later the government initiated “The Do Not Call Registry”

Fast forward many years and there is  a new privacy protocol  mandated by the FCC and  just beginning. It’s called SHAKEN (Signature-based Handling of Asserted Information using toKENS), and it’s named after a martini moment in a James Bond movie (not kidding). SHAKEN uses “trust” a so-called digital certificate to stop robocalls. But as Internet users know digital certificates attract spoofers. STIR, a second FCC protocol, is being enacted for the VOIP phones, and it is further along than SHAKEN. You’ll probably need lots of STIR/SHAKEN martinis before those robocalls cease. 

LESS SPAM on Mobile

I imagine the FCC would have acted sooner had smartphones not pulled the carpet (and wires) out of cabled phones. Mobile phones have amassed fairly strong, built-in protocols for reducing robocalls. First, they use an algorithm somewhat like the STIR to detect a fraudulent number and label it as SPAM. Then, if a robocall is answered, users report it to a blacklist with just a scroll and a click. There’s no messing around with the ‘Do Not Call‘ registry. And, smartphones hand each of us controls to silence calls through multiple settings such as ‘do not ring through’, ‘go directly to voicemail’, ‘ focus’ and the mainstay ‘airplane mode.’ 

The need for local, reliable and community-based telecom is a constant, whether you have a landline,  a mobile phone, or both. A local telecomm initiative in Marin is called “Digital Marin” and your two concerns, robocalls and reliability, are likely to be at their forefront.

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