Colleges, offices scrap land lines

Jennifer Wunder, an associate English professor at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Ga., says she likes to keep her college-provided cellphone handy to send text messages and e-mails to students.

Wunder, 38, says her interaction with students is way up because she's reaching students on the same device they use.

"It's an incredible educational opportunity," she said.

On Jan. 7, she'll join about 75 fellow employees who will unplug their office phone and go wireless for good, said Lonnie Harvel, the school's chief information officer.

The public college is one of a growing number of businesses and organizations across the USA that are shedding traditional land lines and replacing them with cellphones or voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) technology in an effort to save money during tough economic times.

There are no national statistics available on how many of the nation's businesses have cut the cord. Lisa Pierce, vice president of Forrester Research, a marketing consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass., estimates about 25% of businesses are starting to phase out desk phones. More than 8% of employees nationwide who travel frequently have only cellphones, says Bill Hughes, an analyst with In-Stat, a marketing consulting firm in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"In the business environment, it's really a matter of a company saying, 'This will save us money,' " Hughes said.Robert Rosenberg, president of The Insight Research Corp. in Boonton, N.J., said U.S. businesses lag behind Europe and Asia in going wireless because major cellular carriers, such as AT&T and Verizon, are also earning money by providing land lines to businesses — an $81.4 billion industry in 2008, he said.

Rosenberg said businesses nationwide spent $51.7 billion on wireless devices this year but in five years will double that to $107.6 billion, overtaking their expenses for land lines.

U.S. tax law is a hurdle for employers going wireless, said Jason Goldman, counsel for telecommunications and e-commerce for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Since 1989, he said, the Internal Revenue Service has deemed personal use of company cellphones as extra compensation, which creates extra paperwork for both employers and employees.

The chamber supports changing the code so employees don't have to list their calls, Goldman said.

Among those going land line-free:

• In Washington, the City Administrator's office launched a pilot program in October in which 30 employees with government-issued cellphones gave up their desk phones, said deputy mayor Dan Tangherlini. Because the government has issued more than 11,000 cellphones to employees, the program could multiply into a significant savings if a portion also give up desk phones, he said.

• KLA-Tencor, a manufacturer to semiconductor companies that earned $2.5 billion last year, plans to equip 42 employees with only cellphones by March, said Timothy Campos, the chief information officer for the San Jose company. The calls will connect into a VOIP phone system that will save money on international calls, he said.

• Colleges, including St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, Ind.; Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis.; Roanoke College in Salem, Va.; and Elon University in North Carolina, have removed land lines from dorms the past two years, representatives at those schools say.

They are saving hundreds of thousands of dollars by doing so, said Jeri Semer, executive director of the Association for Information Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education in Lexington, Ky.

St. Mary's saved $400,000, which it put mostly toward faculty salaries, said Laurie Stickelmaier, vice president for finance and administration.

A study conducted among more than 16,000 households from January to June by the National Center for Health Statistics of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found more than one in six families have substituted a wireless telephone for a land line.

"The trend shows no signs of slowing down," said Stephen Blumberg, a senior scientist who worked on the report.

Latshaw reports for The Daily Times in Salisbury, Md.