No More 'Can I Use The Phone?'
That strange piece of equipment college freshmen encounter when they first set foot in their dorm rooms is called a land line. It is a telephone you cannot carry around with you, a phone you must share with others.
But breathe easy: Such explanations may not be needed much longer, as colleges are moving to spare students the trauma of conversing while tethered to a wire. The College of William and Mary announced last week that it is cutting the cord, joining dozens of other colleges across the country in saving money by dumping the land lines in their dormitories.
An editorial in the William and Mary student newspaper, The Flat Hat, put it best: "At a time when 92 percent of students say they use cells as their primary means of communication, room phones have become an anachronism -- like party lines, or copyrighted music (evidently)."
(The same editorial notes that the traditional phone serves no purpose even in the paper's newsroom: "Every once in a while, The Flat Hat's office phone rings. Occasionally it's a wrong number. More often, that phone lies silent while cell phone rings punctuate the office chatter. The fax machine remains a staff curiosity, a beast preserved from another age.")
Roanoke College similarly cut its land lines last summer. When the college offered students the option of keeping a land line connection in their rooms, all of six students signed up (there was a $250 deposit attached to the option.)
Does the trend on college campuses portend the end for the home land line? Certainly the telecom industry is talking about that prospect. And given the role college life plays in steering adult expectations--those unisex bathrooms that are becoming more and more common in pricey restaurants seem reasonable to people who came of age in dorms where bathrooms were no longer segregated by sex--there's every reason to believe land lines will go the way of pagers, cassettes, and Wite-Out.
At the University of Missouri in Kansas City, when the school opened new dorms last year, students had the option of hooking up a land line in their rooms; of 850 students, fully four did so. Four.
Colleges are cutting out land lines primarily to save money--most of the stories about these moves toss out five-figure maintenance savings as the main motivator.
But most schools going down this road then spend at least that much money trying to beef up cell reception on campuses that are sometimes so sprawling that cell calls are considerably less than reliable.
That's the odd thing about this social shift: Cell reception is never as good as what you get on land lines, and as we in Washington know all too well, cells tend to get overwhelmed when there's a big event or emergency. Further, those who understand the technology behind what appear to be two separate phone systems are quick to remind us that cells and land lines are more integrated than we may think, as cell calls are routinely routed along paths that use the basic wire system. So the core infrastructure behind land lines is not going away.
What is changing is the nature of telephoning as a consumer behavior. The loss of the common telephone in the dorm is a key moment in this transformation, because it eliminates yet another shared experience in our lives. In a few short years, the phone has gone from something that had to be negotiated--how many movies and novels include family battles over teenagers hogging the phone, or college hallway arguments over access to a shared phone?--to a tool that is wholly individual, private. New technologies tend to isolate and atomize even as they connect us in previously unimaginable ways.
Nobody liked the old system of having to share a phone and account to others for your personal conversations. But moving into a world in which there is one less point of contact with your roommates or relatives is not exactly the kind of progress that makes us better people.
By Marc Fisher |
February 11, 2009; 8:42 AM ET
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