U.S. households with cell phones only surpass those with land lines

WASHINGTON – In a high-tech shift accelerated by the recession, the number of U.S. households opting for cell phones only has for the first time surpassed those that just have traditional land lines.

It is the freshest evidence of the growing appeal of wireless phones.

Twenty percent of households had cells only during the last half of 2008, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey released Wednesday. That was an increase of nearly 3 percentage points over the first half of the year, the largest six-month increase since the government started gathering such data in 2003.

The 20 percent of homes with cell phones only compared with 17 percent with land lines but no cell phones.

“They’re going the way of the disco,” Stacy Frank, 25, said of land-line phones. Frank, who works at a Washington law firm, said she wouldn’t even consider installing one.

“That’s double the cost,” she added. “Why would you have it? You can’t take it with you.”

Six in 10 households have both land lines and cell phones. Even so, industry analysts emphasized the public’s growing love affair with the versatility of cell phones, which can perform functions such as receiving text messages and are also mobile.

“The end game is consumers are paying two bills for the same service,” said John Fletcher, an analyst for the market research firm SNL Kagan, referring to cell and land-line phones. “Which are they going to choose? They’ll choose the one they can take with them in their car.”

Hard-wired customers are dropping the service at a rate of about 10 percent a year, according to Bill Kula, a spokesman for Verizon, the largest U.S. wireless provider.

Better call quality and battery life are making it easier to cut the cord, Kula said, but he doesn’t expect land lines to disappear completely. People who keep their land-line phones say they do it for safety and reliability, Verizon found in a survey last year.

A caller’s location is easier to fix when a 911 call is made from a land line. Also, land-line communication doesn’t go out when the power does or a phone battery dies or a flood of callers swamps a cellular network.

Pollsters, for their part, are concerned about hard-to-reach cell phone users skewing their results. The Gallup Organization decided last year to begin calling cell phone numbers in order to get a more accurate cross-section of Americans in its surveys, spokesman Eric Nielsen said.

“The cell phone-only person is different from the general population,” Nielsen said, and the CDC’s survey bore him out.

Stephen Blumberg, senior scientist at the CDC and an author of the report, said that people who live in homes that have wireless service only tend to be disproportionately low-income, young, renters and Latino.