“We just wanted to make sure you were aware of this great deal,” Time Warner Cable told my friend Susan for the fourth time in two days, calling her at work to encourage buying cable and a landline, when all she’d ordered was internet. On the fourth call, Susan said she was so frustrated that she finally yelled at the TWC robot on the other end of the line,”I have a cell phone and I watch TV on my computer, sorry.”
Earlier this year Verizon decided to bundle its DSL broadband and basic cable with landline phone service, making Verizon the only internet service provider that requires customers to purchase its voice service as well (unless you opt for its higher-end FiOS internet service). TWC and Comcast don’t force you to buy phone service, but they make it so economically advantageous to buy it in a bundle with cable and internet that it almost feels that way. All three companies offer package rates that heavily incentivize bundled phone deals by making them the same price or cheaper than standalone TV/internet services. For instance, a coworker tried to cancel her TWC phone service, but was told her bill would actually cost more each month if she did. And the same is true at Comcast — in some cases it can cost more to buy a TV/internet double play package than a triple pay setup, with TV, internet and phone. (Though prices vary by location, so your YMMV.)
For a younger generation of smartphone users, this clear push for home phones from cable companies and ISPs feels downright backwards, and seems illogical when research shows a continued decline in the number of households with landline phone service. So the constant prodding from companies like Verizon, Time Warner Cable and Comcast to lump landline phone service in with cable and Internet isn’t just annoying, it’s also kind of… odd.
But talk to any of the three major players and you’d think landlines are alive and well — the future, almost. “We still have millions of voice customers,” Bob Elek, manager of media relations at Verizon, told me. “And when they can’t get their voice service, people are not very patient, even if they have a cell phone.” The same sentiments rang true when I talked to Charlie Douglas, Comcast’s director of communications.
“We’ve had continuous growth in voice (phone) for five consecutive years,” Douglas told me. “We are growing home phone customers.” At Comcast in particular, they’re trying to “completely reinvent the home phone experience” by offering services like universal caller ID and its Xfinity app that lets customers make calls from their smartphone BUT shows their landline number as the Caller ID. (I’m still not sure why anyone would want this?)
“We’re trying to bring new value to the landline telephone by bringing in innovative new technologies,” Douglas told me, beating the drum. And the pitch: “But to really enjoy the full fleet of features, you have to be a triple play customer.”
At TWC, for the same basic TV and 10Mbps Internet speed, when you add a landline phone to the deal there’s only about a $10 difference in pricing — but choosing all three saves you $30 per month as compared to only $5 (again these prices reflect my address in Brooklyn, and could be different elsewhere.) It isn’t always clear how these savings are calculated — the people I spoke with always pointed to different promotions or packages only available for certain people — which makes it seem like nobody at any company really knew what anything actually cost. As a customer, the difference in pricing between two services and all three is so negligible, it feels like they’re throwing in the landline service for “free”.
But make no mistake, these companies aren’t in the business of giving things away for free. “Once you come off the promotional pricing, then they start to charge you more,” Amanda Sabia, a consumer technologies analyst at Gartner, told me. “Voice is 20% of my bill, so they’re not giving anything away for free, that’s for sure.” Even though these companies make the triple plays and bundle deals seem like a steal at the onset, after a year they can start to charge you more for the cable box or that landline you never wanted, making up for the the lost revenue in discounts and what seems like a “free” voice service.
Plus, once you’re locked in, these companies capitalize on what Sabia calls the “hassle factor” — it’s more work to call, wait, wait, wait, and try to cancel your services from your existing provider that has jacked up your monthly bill, or to go and purchase standalone services from two different providers. The cable companies in particular make it so difficult to ditch your home phone because they want to attract landline-lovers away from the telecommunications companies like Verizon and AT&T. “Oh absolutely,” said Comcast’s Douglas when I asked him if that was part of the reason behind bundling phone service. “[With the telecoms] it’s like $75 for plain old telephone service.” Comcast can attract those who don’t need Internet or cable (yes those people exist) to buy all three services from them since it’s as cost-competitive as standalone phone service from the telecoms.
Verizon and Comcast did acknowledge the generational differences for new customers not looking for a landline, but at this point landliners are still the vast majority — wireless-only households made up only 31.6% of the population in 2011. So for now, embrace the bulk that is a landline phone, give your super cool home phone number out to your friends and make long distance calls to China from the comfort of your bed because it doesn’t look like landlines are going anywhere for awhile.