Harding Magazine


Wireless phenomenon poses threat to landline phones on campus and across the nation

By Heather Williams, photography by Jeff Montgomery

“Can you hear me now?”

The question that’s made Verizon Wireless a household name could very well have been uttered between Alexander Graham Bell   and Thomas A. Watson more than 130 years ago as they stumbled upon what would eventually become the telephone during their experiments with the telegraph.

The last century has transitioned the telephone from novelty item to absolute necessity. The University, along with the rest of the world, has seen tremendous changes in the communication realm. Students today roam the halls and stroll across campus with a cell phone glued to their ear, a laptop in their bag, and the world at their fingertips. But there was a time when many students had only a weekly phone call or written correspondence to keep them connected to home.

In 1969 Tammie Skelton (’73) Hacker arrived on campus to find herself more than 200 miles away from her family. Whereas today’s students can connect with parents, siblings and friends back home in a matter of seconds, Hacker remembers the days when students didn’t have a phone in their room but shared one with an entire dorm floor.

student on cell phoneHacker called home every Sunday, and, with no long distance service, the only method was to call collect. She and her mother also stayed in touch by writing letters. As a busy student caught up in university life, she didn’t always mind the disconnection from her family but says that sharing a phone with an entire floor of young women had its drawbacks.

“Sometimes the phone in the hall would ring off the wall until someone decided to answer it, and then they would yell the name of whoever the phone was for until they came. Messages often didn’t get delivered. The phone ringing and the yelling could be a distraction if you were trying to sleep or study. If someone with a steady boyfriend got on the phone first after curfew — it was 10 p.m. on weekdays back then — the line might be tied up for an hour or more.”

For students in the late 80s and early 90s, communication options were a tremendous improvement. The hassle of sharing a phone with an entire floor shrank down to simply sharing it with a roommate. Susan Ward (’92) Cutshall began her college journey in 1989 and depended on her dorm phone as a primary means of connecting with family back home and friends on campus.

“I used my dorm phone quite a bit for campus calls and then to stay in touch with home,” says Cutshall. “I remember when I moved into the apartment I was going to live in after I got married, and we didn’t have a phone. I had to ‘schedule’ calls and use the phone that was near the couches behind the Heritage front desk. It was a pain.”

Cutshall took advantage of campus long distance services, calling home once a week and also wrote letters to her family. When her now husband Tyler (’93) went home to Houston one summer, Cutshall stayed behind to attend classes. The two would wait until after 11 p.m. to call each other because rates were so much cheaper late in the evening.

More than 20 years later, students are more connected to home and friends than ever before. The emergence of the cell phone has forever changed the way communication occurs on campus. No longer anchored to the wall in their dorm room, a student can have a conversation with their mom or dad while having dinner in the cafeteria, walking to the library, or driving through town. Most students don’t even have a landline phone hooked up in their dorm room.

Says senior James Buce, “When I was a freshman, my roommate and I had a dorm phone and used the landline, but not since then have I even considered setting up a phone in my dorm.”

Buce says he relies on his cell phone because he always has it with him, and it’s more convenient. He sees the dorm phone as an unnecessary tool.
Junior Kylie Akins agrees. “I use my cell phone because it’s so much easier to have all the numbers I need programmed into my phone. I never bought a regular phone, so I only have my cell phone.”

Lora Fleener (’82), manager of student support and communications, arrived at the University 27 years ago when students and staff depended on the traditional landline telephone and even written correspondence, now referred to as “snail mail.”

“Everybody used their phone and used us to call long-distance,” says Fleener. “We were their phone company, and it was a big business at that time. Twenty years later, it’s not.”

The University purchased long-distance services from a variety of phone carriers through the years and resold those services to students. It was the lifeline students needed to call home and enabled the University to pay for new technology that transitioned the campus from a system where faculty and staff shared an extension number and everything came through a switchboard to one where everyone had their own number and could receive calls directly.

“That was a big deal, and reselling long distance paid for that switch. We’ve since upgraded and have progressed through the years, but no one [students] uses it anymore.”

Campus trends are merely an echo of what’s happening throughout the nation. As the cell phone takeover threatens to cut the landline cord, the world of wireless has become a phenomenon. According to the 13th annual report to Congress, available on the Federal Communications Commission Web site, there were 263 million mobile telephone subscribers in the U.S. in 2007, a 63 percent increase from 2003.

The appeal of the cell phone is not difficult to grasp. Most fit in the palm of one’s hand and come with a variety of flashy covers and accessories. If one doesn’t have time to talk or can’t talk out loud at the moment, a text message can be sent instead. Bluetooth headsets mean no more achy shoulders trying to balance a phone while driving, cooking or working. Favorite songs may even be downloaded as a ringtone.

Smart phones and the Apple iPhone have launched the cellular world into an entirely new dimension. Acting as a tiny handheld computer, they enable the user to take pictures, shoot video, map out their busy schedule, check e-mail, and even browse the Internet. Apple has created numerous applications, and, as their slogan says, there’s an “app for everything.” The busy on-the-go physician can view an MRI on his iPhone, and there are even applications to connect people in the church and accompany them on their spiritual journey.

The Cutshalls have come a long way since their college days and launched 43rd Element, an Apple application design and development company, in February. The company aims to merge technology with a missionary mindset and offers a variety of iPhone applications, including eight daily devotionals and an original application called RelationTips. There is also a Prayer Wall that enables users to post requests and join with others in prayer; this application received more than 5,000 downloads within the first three weeks of launching. Users can purchase and download these and other applications through the Apple iTunes Store.

With the convenience of wireless technology and trends like texting and applications, the lifespan of the landline is growing shorter by the second. Preliminary results for the July-December 2008 report for The National Health Interview Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that more than one of every five American households had only wireless telephones. For those who still have a landline, one out of seven received all or most of their calls on a cell phone.

“I guess people want to have immediate access, and that [cell phone] is always with them,” says Fleener. “That’s how society is now, wanting everything immediately, on demand, right now. The students are no different. They want to talk to somebody immediately; they want to text.”
Says Akins, “Texting is just as easy for me because my friend or I might be in a situation where we can’t talk out loud.”
Buce agrees. “I usually prefer to call someone, but text messaging is just more common, so I text most of the time because that is what my friends will respond to more.”

FCC trends show that the monthly volume of text messaging traffic across the U.S. grew from 2.08 billion in 2003 to 48.1 billion in 2007.
Akins says she sometimes wishes for a landline when she goes beyond her cell phone plan minutes and also points out that landlines are often more reliable. “Cell phones are occasionally unpredictable. They might not have good reception, and the conversation may be too distorted to continue. Landlines would definitely be handy when there is nowhere to charge a cell phone.”

Says Buce, “The only time I wished I would have had a landline would be when I had to give out a number and didn’t want to use my cell phone.”
Fleener says that although it has been discussed, no definite plans are in place to get rid of dorm room landlines. However, cell phones remain the most reliable way to contact students.

The University will launch its new emergency response  system this fall, enabling the Office of Public Safety to contact the campus community through a variety of avenues with the click of a button. If an emergency occurs, students have the option to receive notification through a recorded voice call, text message or e-mail, but the message will not be distributed to dorm phones.

“We did not put that on there because we knew it would not be an effective means of communication since no one plugs up a phone,” says Fleener. “We don’t want to tie up the system calling a number that no one is going to answer.”

The popularity of cell phones and other technology wonders such as e-mail, text messaging and social networking Web sites like Facebook most certainly have contributed to the downward-spiraling landline. Whether we will lose the old method altogether remains to be seen, but one thing’s for certain: having numerous methods of communication ensures that no one is cut off from friends and loved ones anymore.

Editor’s note: At the time of publication, Federal Communications Commission statistics for 2008 were not yet available.


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