Shoddy call quality, poor coverage and dropped calls are not deterring Americans from trading in their land lines in favor of cell phones. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now puts the number of cell phone-only households in the U.S. at one-third.
The figure comes from an early release of estimates from the National Health Interview Survey, January-June 2012. In surveys of American homes, the CDC found 35.8% of homes had only wireless telephones, an increase of 1.8 percentage points since the second half of 2011. It also found another 15.9% received all or almost all calls on wireless phones despite also having a landline in the house.
Not surprisingly, the trend is generational. For example, 60.1% of adults aged 25-29 lived in households with only wireless phones, while only 10.5% of households over age 65 were wireless-only.
Other stats were more surprising. For example, higher income adults had the lowest rate of cell phone-only households at 30.7%, while 51.8% of adults households living in poverty were cell phone-only.
The CDC does things like national immunization surveys, tracks immunization coverage levels for children and the use of flu vaccinations, so the CDC can see who has and has not received vaccinations, according to Dr. Steven Blumberg, who co-authored the report. This is important for government agencies because they use surveys to collect data on things like trends on lifestyle habits and behaviors.
For example, when it comes to health characteristics, "what we find is wireless-only adults are more likely to binge drink, to smoke, to go without health insurance, are more likely to engage in high risk behaviors. While you might think that's a result of being younger, even when we control for things like age, race, income, marriage, home ownership, we still find the wireless-only population engage in more risky behaviors," said Blumberg.
So not having this portion of the population would underestimate health risk behaviors. The CDC contacts people by generating random phone numbers and calling them with a computer. If a person answers, an operator comes on and initiates the call.
Unfortunately, a 1991 telecommunications law makes this tricky. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 outlawed computer-generated calls to cell phones. Back then, an incoming call to a cell phone was quite expensive, so the law was intended to protect people from getting socked with huge bills. But the law has not been updated to reflect the changes in wireless use over the last 22 years.
So when the CDC generates random phone numbers, it now has to compare them to a database of known wireless numbers. If the number is known to be a land line, a computer can generate the call. But if the number belongs to a cell phone, a CDC operator has to make a call manually.
Cell phones have no 411 directory, which essentially makes every cell phone a private line, and consumers have revolted loudly when the carriers tried to change that, notes Iain Gillott, president of the wireless market research firm iGR.
With a large portion of the population hidden away, it gives skewed results to more than just CDC polls. That's one reason why the polling results prior to the 2012 Presidential election proved so far off from the final result of the vote.
"Political polling goes to land lines and look how accurate that was in the last election," said Gillott. "If the pollsters want to keep calling land lines they will be less accurate than they were last time."
So, he said, the CDC, pollsters, and everyone else need to adapt to the new wireless world. "I'm not sure what the down side is here. We used to write letters, now we send e-mail. We used to write memos, print them out and send them around the company the next day. Now we send the employees a mass e-mail. It's just things moving on, simple as that. I don't think there's anything bad in moving away from land lines," said Gillott.
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