The hang up with cell phones

The Baltimore Sun

We have two grown sons, ages 27 and 24. Both are gainfully employed, live in respectable apartments and have cell phones. Although both can afford one, neither has seen any reason to install a landline.

This has its advantages. For example, we don't have to think about whether they're at home before we call. And at home is someplace they're usually not. On the other hand, a call answered doesn't necessarily mean a call completed.

"Sorry Dad, I'm just headed down into the subway and GRRcHH*3!!ChSHHHHHHclick ... ."

"Sorry Dad, CAN'T HEAR YOU! YEAH, THE MUSIC IN THE BAR IS A LITTLE LOUD! HEY, DAD, IS THIS REALLY THAT IMPORTANT?"

You may be familiar with these scenarios, which are becoming more common as the number of Americans who rely strictly on cell phone is increasing. At the end of 2006, just over 10 percent of adults in America lived in households that rely strictly on cell phones, according to a federal survey.

Among my sons' peers, 25 percent to 30 percent are cell-only users, compared with just 6 percent in 2003. This is a critical demographic because it shows the direction of people who are making many of their first adult buying decisions - traits that often last a lifetime.

The change also has serious implications for those who want to reach these young people, including parents, politicians, pollsters and marketers.

Oddly enough, some of the best research on cell versus landline reliance comes from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

For 50 years, the agency has been conducting the National Health Interview Survey, whose title describes what it's about.

CDC wants to make sure that its surveys accurately portray the state of America's health, and to do that, it has to know how to reach people on callbacks. So it now asks them what kinds of phones they have - wireless, landline, both or none.

Unlike other groups that commission surveys - wireless carriers, traditional landline companies, Internet phone outfits, telephone manufacturers or even the Federal Communications Commission - CDC isn't selling anything or pushing a particular economic or political agenda on this subject. So you can have reasonable confidence in the results.

From June through December of 2006, the most recent period tabulated, the agency surveyed more than 13,000 households whose occupants included more than 24,000 adults and 9,100 children. The size of the sample gives its results a very low margin of error.

Some findings

Among its findings:

More than half of all adults living with unrelated roommates (54 percent) depended solely on cellular telephone service. This is the highest of any subgroup CDC examined. In practical terms, this means landlines are disappearing from college dorms, student apartments and quarters shared by young working people.

The older you get, the less likely you are to abandon your landline. Among boomer parents of the cell phone generation (ages 45 to 64), the proportion of cell-only users declined to 6.1 percent. For adults 64 and older, it was less than 2 percent.

Adults living in poverty (22.4 percent) were more likely than higher-income residents to live in cellular-only households. One reason: cheap, pay-as-you-go cell phones available in retail stores.

Adults living in the South (14 percent) were far more likely than adults in the Northeast (8.6 percent) to live in cell-only households.

Blacks and Hispanics, non-homeowners and single people also are more likely to be cell phone-only customers than the general population.

The age differences are interesting here, because the figures show a generation that's weaning itself from the country's most common communications technology.

These cell phone users present a challenge: to pollsters who want balanced samples, telemarketers who want to sell everything, schoolteachers trying to track down parents, even 911 operators fielding emergency calls. That's for a variety of reasons, but mainly because there's no directory of cell phone numbers and no plans to produce one.

For this we can thank America's first generation of cellular providers, whose business model envisioned charging customers for both making and receiving calls on mobile phones. In Europe, cell phone providers used the same business model as traditional phone companies here and abroad - the caller pays.

With the meter starting the second a customer answers a call, as well as the moment he makes one - many users in the U.S. just won't take calls from numbers they don't recognize - it costs them money or eats up monthly minutes.

That's one major reason there's no white pages directory for cell phone numbers (Internet rumors notwithstanding).

No one in his right mind wants to advertise a cell phone number to telemarketers - particularly when it costs good money to listen to their pitch. On the opposite end, federal law prohibits automated dialing of cell-phone numbers, eliminating one of telemarketing's major efficiencies.

Finally, the chances of actually selling something to a customer who has to pay for the call is even more marginal than it is with landline telemarketing.

Pollsters squeamish

Political pollsters are also squeamish about using random digit dialing on blocks of cell phone numbers. Thanks to number portability, they're hard to sort geographically. In addition to hand dialing, pollsters usually offer cell phone targets reimbursement for their airtime. This makes cell phone users far more expensive to reach.

The problem first came to light during the 2004 presidential election, when some critics blamed some of Democrat John Kerry's low poll numbers on the shortage of young cell phone users in the telephone sample survey teams used.

In a report last month to the American Association for Public Opinion Research, the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that poll results from cell phone-only and landline users differed by as much as 8 percentage points.

However, because their numbers are still relatively small, the overall impact of cell phone-only users was no more than 2 percentage points - not enough to affect overall results.

Still, the difference in responses between young adults, Hispanics, singles and other groups was enough to be troubling as more citizens, particularly young ones, go cell-only.

And that's one more reason to take political polls with a grain of salt.

To give credit where it's due, I'd like to thank my elder son (the loud bar music) for alerting me to the CDC report. You can find a downloadable copy at www.cdc.gov/nchs/nhis.htm.

For the Pew/Associated Press report on polling concerns, point your Web browser to www.cdc.gov/nchs/nhis.htm. Click on the icon whose title begins, "Wireless Substitution."

mike.himowitz@baltsun.com

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