Cellphone Numbers Overtake Land Lines

Via Kevin Drum, I see there are more American cell phone numbers than land line numbers, according to FCC calculations. This has renewed the debate as to how this trend will affect public opinion survey research.

Cellphone Numbers Overtake Land Lines (LAT)

Hold the phone. The number of mobile-phone users in the U.S. surpassed the number of conventional land-based phone lines in the second half of 2004, the government said Friday. By the end of the year, there were 181.1 million cellphone subscribers, compared with 177.9 million access lines into U.S. homes and businesses, the Federal Communications Commission said in a biannual report.

“It was only a matter of time,” said analyst Charles Golvin of Forrester Research Inc. “We’ve been on this path for a number of years.” A decade ago, the industry had 25 million customers, he said; it should pass 200 million this year. “We’ve never had such a monumental shift in the way we select our communications,” said John Walls, spokesman for the cellular industry’s trade group, CTIA.

The trend, spurred mainly by young people who have never paid for land-line service, is ingrained throughout all age segments, Golvin said. So ingrained, in fact, that customers in nearly a third of North American households make at least half their long-distance calls at home from their cellphones rather than their more reliable and often cheaper land lines, he said.

I make virtually all my long distance calls with my cell, since I tend to have more minutes that I use even on the least expensive rate plans. The only reason I still maintain a landline at all is because of TiVo.

Ezra Klein and his girlfriend have already cut the cord, so to speak:

My girlfriend and I are a good example — two cells, no landline. The question, then, is how long before this starts violently skewing poll results. Pollsters are legally barred from calling cell phones. Cell phone users, to some degree or another, make up a different demographic profile than the rest of the country (skewed young and economically mobile), and may have different political opinions than the land users.

One suspects the pollsters will figure out a way around the ban. Indeed, John Zogby seems well on the way to doing just that:

Mr. Zogby went on to note that Zogby International plans to explore future text-message surveys in response to concerns throughout the polling industry about reaching mobile telephone users. He added that text-messaging has become an important tool for political activists on both sides of the political spectrum, and Zogby International will be at the forefront of technology shifts that affect polling.

Officials of the non-partisan Rock the Vote praised the joint effort with Zogby and Motorola. The text-message poll marks a departure from current industry standards for polling, but promises to be a first step toward addressing the growing number of Americans who rely primarily—if not solely—on mobile phones.

My guess is that it’ll take a couple election cycles to work the bugs out of this.

Moreover, as Robert Cox notes,

That’s now how pollsters operate. First, they can plug in known cell phone area codes like 646 and random dial the remaining 7 digits to reach cell phone owners. Second, they keep calling until they get a certain number of people of certain types including young people so there is such thing as a demographic that doesn’t get included in the sample; they keep calling until they hit the right numbers.

Indeed, as Ezra himself notes, the polls results have thus far not been skewed by the cell-only phenomenon. Still, it is not inconceivable that the type of young person that go cell-only could be different than their tradition land plus cell cohort. Eric Nielsen of the Gallup Poll has not found that to be the case, however.

[W]hile he is concerned about the issue, the demographic sampling of even young cellular-only users is comparable to the pool already available to his organization. “The people who are cell-phone-only users are not one demographic, and that’s something people are overlooking in this whole debate,” Nielsen said. “Young adult polling is not heavily for one candidate over the other; they’re splitting pretty evenly.”

Nielsen urged caution on Beckel’s push for an FCC rule change, saying that even if technology made it possible for polling organizations to pick up the tab they could still face liability issues, for instance, when calling people while they’re driving.

Indeed, although many states have banned use of cell phones while driving, anyway.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. In LA, we only had a landline to support DSL. Now that we use cable broadband in Cambridge, we have no need for it. Cell phone or bust — and that’s just the way we like.

  2. bryan says:

    Ezra Klein says: Pollsters are legally barred from calling cell phones.

    Zogby and his ilk (yes, I look at professional opinion pollsters as an ilk) seem to have no problem randomly calling cell phones.

    So who’s on the right in regards to the law here.

    And I’m curious as to how this text messaging stuff is going to mess up the data as well.

    And, Klein makes this statement:

    Indeed, as Ezra himself notes, the polls results have thus far not been skewed by the cell-only phenomenon.

    How does he know? Apart from polls that actually have some verifiable end result – like, say, an election – there’s no way of knowing whether the results were skewed or not.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Bryan: The 2004 election polling is what most people who’ve looked at this trend have studied; that election matched up well with the polling. It could, of course, have been an outlier.

  4. Zogby? Bah! The liberal-tool jackass defended his metholodgy for 2004 and DISMISSED the impact of the proliferation of cellphones in his defense.

    Zogby’s just another midget celebrating low tide, dancing among the pier pilings and utterly oblivious to the slowly rising waters.

  5. jim says:

    There seems to be a rush to declare the “cell only” crowd to be young MTV type people. That may be the case but in our part of eastern NC there is another demographic, —the poor. Those without much income or those without established credit [yep including the illegals] can get a prepaid phone and not have to get a credit check. The phone is also convenient when you move. This population tends to move frequently.