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Many mobile-phone users are deciding that they don't need a land line at all

By Irene Sege, Globe Staff, 12/15/2001

There was a time when anyone wanting to reach Karl Prinz could call him at work, call him at home (good luck), call him on his cellphone, beep him, e-mail him, leave a voice-mail message for him at work, at home (good luck), or on his cell. Then he accidentally broke his beeper and never fixed it. Guess what? He could manage without it. Next he disconnected the phone in his Beacon Hill apartment.

That's how Prinz, 33, veteran of the Hub's club scene, co-owner and manager of the Leather District haunt Trio, simplified his life. He didn't go back to the land. He ditched his land line. Like a small but growing number of the always-connected, he decided his home telephone was superfluous.

"For me, it cut down having too many phones around," says Prinz. "I have three lines just for myself at the office. I have to make decisions about which phone to pick up. The one at home got axed."

Christopher Rogan, a 24-year-old medical student, has said goodbye to one dreaded ritual of life with roommates: divvying up the monthly phone bill, and figuring out who called Walla Walla, or, worse, the horror stories he's heard of being left with the hefty long-distance bills of a roommate who skips town. Gone too is the inconvenience of changing his phone number every time he changes his address. When Rogan and two Boston University classmates moved into their South End apartment in August, they never hooked up a land line. He's too busy during the day to use his phone much, and a wire line looked pretty unattractive when he could get a cellphone with 200 daytime minutes, nationwide long distance, and free nights and weekends for $40 a month.

"It's just not worth it. You can't take it with you. You can only use it in one place," Rogan says. "Maybe when I get settled and have my own house I'll get one. But living in an apartment in Boston, you don't need one."

Whether the consideration is convenience or cost or both, people like Prinz and Rogan are turning topsy-turvy the assumption that living a modern life means claiming a spot in the worldwide web of telephone wires. For them, the cellphone has graduated from optional accessory to necessity - and if something's got to go it's the land line, not the cellphone.

What numbers exist suggest that the trend, so far, is small. Only 3 percent of the nation's wireless users have abandoned their wire phones, up from 2 percent in 1998, according to Yankee Group estimates, with the bulk of them highly mobile 20- somethings who either don't have Internet access at home or connect via cable modem. The number would be higher if it included people such as WRKO morning diva Darlene McCarthy, who uses her home phone line only to connect her computer to the Internet. ("Some of my best friends have phones," she says. "I just don't need it.")

Add a generation of teens coming of age with cellphones in their backpacks and the future looks more and more wireless. Teenage Research Unlimited reports that 37 percent of 12- to 19-year-olds have their own cellphones, up from 25 percent in 2000. More than half of 18- and 19-year-olds have them.

"We consider the teens to be the true pioneers of land-line displacement," says Yankee Group analyst Knox Bricken. "They have grown up at a time when a phone is more associated with a person than a place. They will definitely use wireless as their only phone when they're adults."

Not everyone going "all cell" is young. Richard Broughton, 46, president of Caterstaff of Boston, cut his land line six months ago. "I felt like I was duplicating." His cellphone "is connected to the Internet so I can get my voice mail and my e-mail," he says. "It's more economical and it's more efficient. I'm on the phone constantly with staffing at work. It just makes a lot more sense to have everything on one line."

Publicist Peggy Rose disconnected her home telephone about four months ago - and bid adieu to the number she'd had for about 20 years. "Everybody across the board was, `Omigod, when I think of that number, it's you. I can never learn a new number,"' she says. "I finally had to say it's just a phone number. Let it go."

Not everyone going "all cell" is saving money. Or getting the same quality reception as a land line. Or always remembering to keep the cellphone charged.

Ali Kinchla, 21, a senior at BU, was thinking pocketbook when she moved into an off-campus apartment in the fall. She'd be living there for only nine months. She was already locked into a cellphone contract with 200 daytime minutes a month. No way installing a land line made sense, right? Wrong. "I don't get my messages until hours later. There are times when the phone doesn't ring. It's much more expensive than I thought it would be," she says.

So she screens her daytime calls and lets some go directly into voice mail. She'll call back after 9 p.m., courtesy of "free nights and weekends," or reply via e-mail rather than by cell. "Will I ever do this again? Probably not. Because of cost," she says. "If only I were making calls, I could regulate it. It's when other people call you and you get charged" that the bill gets out of control.

Glenn Barnett, 24, a software engineer, and his roommate never got a land line when they moved to their Somerville apartment last year. He can't think of a good reason to get a home telephone, but living without one has drawbacks. "Pizza delivery people will say, `Is this a cellphone? We need to call you on a real phone,"' he says. "If I'm down in the basement, it won't ring. Or if it's raining, the reception won't be good. My parents hate it."

Prinz, the restaurant owner, went all cell about two years ago. He recently moved to Newton, to a house with a decent kitchen, spacious bathroom, good-sized bedroom, access to the Mass. Pike - and, as he was dismayed to learn, lousy wireless reception.

"I'm in a big tizzy," he says. "I'm in a zone where I don't get cellphone reception. I have to go by the tree on my deck." Lucky for him that December's been balmy so far. Come the cold weather, he might break down and use the land line that came bundled with the cable TV hookup to his new home. Or maybe he'll try something altogether different.

"This is my theory," he says. "A few years ago it was really cool to have a cellphone. Now I can't get away. The next step is no phone. That will be the new status symbol."

This story ran on page F1 of the Boston Globe on 12/15/2001.
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