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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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While I do think the college land-line is indeed doomed to extinction, I am surprised the focus of this piece places emphasis on the loss of a shared phone in the dorms. I virtually lived through the transition from going up to call boxes outside of dorms to just calling from cell phone to cell phone (I was in college from 2000-2005). However I and all of my friends in other colleges had two or three landlines in our dorms, there was one for each student in the dorm. We never had to share phones. I suspect Mr. Fisher is hearkening back to an even earlier era than he realizes...perhaps the 80's?

Posted by: arthwys | February 11, 2009 9:13 AM

For not much money ($20/phone), I can have one in every room of the house with a landline. A cell phone? Either I carry it around or have to run to find it. Thanks, no.

As for dorms, lucky students. I hated that first week of college each year waiting for the phone to be hooked up and then having to distribute the new phone number to every friend . . . without hte benefit of email.

Posted by: ah___ | February 11, 2009 9:14 AM

I was in college from 2002-Dec 2005 and we had shared lines in my dorm; was just me and my roommate who shared, but we still did share the landline (and calls were free on-campus on a landline, whereas at that point cells still had overages for smaller plans and fewer daytime minutes available).

Posted by: | February 11, 2009 9:28 AM

We were talking about this over dinner with some friends last back in the early 80s we had a pay phone (!) on each hall in the dorm and a landline in campus apartments with an answering machine. Back then I might have spoke to my parents a couple of times a month. Now, my wife and daughter talk almost daily. We gave her a desk phone for her first dorm room in 2006 and she told me that it may have rung once or twice during her freshman year. At least with a cell phone she does not have to worry about roommates taking messages.

Posted by: skipper7 | February 11, 2009 9:35 AM

A corded land line phone is nice to have in an emergency when the power is out since land line will still work. Cordless phones have batteries like your cell and they dont work without power. And your cell is going to need charging in the emergency becuase that is the way life is.

College pukes should only use the phone to call home once a week. And only incoming calls from parents. No cells or PDAs they should be studying, chasing the Opposite Sex and drinking! No texting.

Posted by: sheepherder | February 11, 2009 9:48 AM

I do miss the old days, when we would gather at the river to beat our laundry on a rock. Washing clothes just isn't a social experience anymore.

Posted by: tomtildrum | February 11, 2009 9:48 AM

Is anybody really surprised by this. I mean I've been out of college about 5 years and I still have never had a landline phone in any of my apartments. Had I had my cell the whole time I was in college I probably wouldn't have used the landlines then either. When you have a lot of family and friends outside the same area code it just makes sense to go with a cell. And having a landline and a cell just costs extra money and doesn't really buy you much. To be honest, unless I had kids or a really large house I probably wouldn't even get a landline in my house when I eventually buy it.

Posted by: bill3 | February 11, 2009 10:00 AM

Landlines are safer in an emergency. I am a recent college grad and I could not live without my landline at home. My cell has no service in my neighborhood and I must make calls from my land line because my cell drops all calls within three minutes. Landlines are more reliable. Cell phones are convenient but not the answer until they improve the network.

Posted by: sscott4321 | February 11, 2009 10:07 AM

Indeed, and why don't men go hunting in groups anymore? Now we just hop into the grocery store (alone!) and come home in an hour and spend time with our family and friends. Where is this horrific path of technology and convenience leading us!? [cue rending of garments/gnashing of teeth]

Posted by: arleneivana | February 11, 2009 10:12 AM

It's truly amazing how quickly and completely technology is changing our lives for the better and for the worse. Ten years ago, how many people even had cell phones?

But I agree with those who say don't give up the land line just yet. Cell service is not so ubiquitous, and the quality is still noticably inferior, so I am not ready to give it up - especially with free local and long distance!

Posted by: stodge | February 11, 2009 10:21 AM

I suspect that the reason more colleges haven't done this yet is the fear of collecting 1000's of these old devices and having to do something with them....

Posted by: JkR- | February 11, 2009 10:57 AM

Of course, Marc doesn't even realize college students no longer speak on the phone anyways - that's what texting is for.

So you really need to adjust that ending to complain about the loss of social contact through talking, and grumpy old man stuff of that nature, Marc.

Posted by: ilikeike | February 11, 2009 12:17 PM


For God's sake, I'm *50* and I have a daughter who's a freshman in college. You have never sounded older or more out of touch. My daughter has figured out that there's a period in her mid-day when she has a few minutes to check in with me, so she called me from her cell. It's great; it's easy. Do you REALLY think she has a worse relationship with her roommate because they don't share a room phone? They share a FRIDGE -- is that OK?

Sheesh, Mark. Get with the program. There is NO reason why a college student would have LESS contact with relatives because she has a cell, rather than a landline.

Posted by: mdean3 | February 11, 2009 3:17 PM

As an old foggy I like college students with cells. I can reach out and bother my child 24/7. He doesn't always answer, but for the most part he knows I've called.

I can also be there when he REALLY needs me, like when he had that accident last week while pulling into the parking lot at the place he was going snowboarding - this is on Friday the day he doesn't have any classes.

What I want to know is how long after graduation do pay for the family plan?

Posted by: RedBird27 | February 11, 2009 4:37 PM

RedBird27 - that is why I like cells - I can bother the girl at ridiculous times when I know it will bug her and not wake her roomie!!

I figure I'm paying for the family plan until she has her first 'real' job, then she and her increasingly expensive tastes are off.

Posted by: merzydoats | February 12, 2009 1:24 PM

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