In the middle of the 19th century, the telegraph was the first technology in history to speed up communications between two people or two locations. Prior to the telegraph, the speed of human communications was measured in horse days: how far a horse could travel in a day. It always amazes me to think that this was the reality only 160 years ago. My great-grandparents were alive then!
There was the brief two year run of the Pony Express, which sped that up by having a fresh horse every 10 to 15 miles between St. Louis and California as that was how far a horse could cover in a gallop. Then the telegraph came along and the world got smaller, fast.
Well into the 20th century, the telegraph was the dominant form of communications between two locations. Even though the landline telephone was invented in the late 19th century, it took half a century for it to become widespread in the developed countries of the world. This “reach out and touch someone” technology ultimately helped to marginalize the telegraph technology to the point when it finally disappeared as an integral communications medium in the last 40 years. The telegraph had served its purpose of using technology for the first time to connect humanity and society. It laid the foundation for all the subsequent communications technologies we now use without thinking.
The Rise of the Telephone (Or: Death to the Telegraph!)
The landline telephone was largely the reason for the demise of the telegraph. Now, the cell phone is indicating that the future of landline telephony is a rapid downward slope towards marginalization. I have written about cell phones, tracking their explosive growth since 2006. It took 20 years to go from the first cell phone user to the billionth. Then four years to get to two billion, two years to three billion, one year to get to four billion, another year to get to five billion. We are now at six billion cell phone users in the world, which is populated by 7.1 billion people. We’ve reached cell phone ubiquity.
More than six years ago I wrote about the (then) amazing statistics about landline and cell phones in the United States. Research revealed that for the first time there were more cell phone-only households than landline-only households. As of August 2007, 14 percent of U.S. adults lived in a household with one or more cell phones but no landline phone. At that same time, 12 percent of US adults lived in a household with a landline but no cell phone. I pointed out the obvious in that column – a predominance of landline-only households were older or elderly adults while the predominance of cell phone-only households were younger adults.
As of the end of 2012, the percentage of U.S. households that were landline-only had dropped to 8.6 percent, while the percentage of cell phone-only households increased to 38.2 percent. That is probably close to 42 percent today, which would be a tripling of this category in the last six years. I forecast that by the end of 2015, more than 50 percent of U.S. households will be cell phone-only and that the landline-only households will fall to 5 percent, where it will remain steady due to some locations simply not having wireless reception.
Of course, there are a lot of households that have both a landline and cell phones. The reasons for this are the legacy businesses that grew on the back of the copper wire landline: home security and the fax machine. In addition, if the electricity goes out or a storm takes out cell towers, having a landline is a back-up. The faxed document is now the scanned document; home security businesses are moving to wireless or coaxial cable technology. There will be business casualties when the landline coverage falls below a certain critical mass, but that was true with the telegraph as well. Creative destruction.
The U.S. may well end up being one of the countries with the highest percentage of landline households by the mid-decade. Many less developed or developing countries never reached landline ubiquity but now have cell phone ubiquity. Why build a copper wire communication network in the 21st century or, in the case of extreme weather events like Sandy, rebuild one?
It took about 100 years from the introduction of the landline telephone to the time of the end of the telegraph as a communications medium. We are now slightly more than 30 years into the age of the cell phone. I think that in less than 25 years, perhaps 20, the landline phone will go the way of the telegraph. It, too, will be another incredibly important historic communications technology that has been rendered obsolete.