Rotary Love.
November 5, 2012 6:52 AM   Subscribe

In disasters or other emergencies, would a rotary telephone have an advantage over any other kind of landline?

We know how useless cell phones are once cell towers are knocked out, and cordless phones have always had horrid aural quality (plus they take electricity to work.) So, between a touch tone landline, and a rotary landline, would the rotary phone have any possible advantage in utility over the touch tone?
We have three rotary phones in our house, because I adore the clickety-clickety-click.
posted by BostonTerrier to Technology (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
No. Landline phones rely on power from the phone company; they don't use power from the wall. Rotary phones use that power, too. It's no different.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:57 AM on November 5, 2012

So, between a touch tone landline, and a rotary landline, would the rotary phone have any possible advantage in utility over the touch tone?

Other than being possessed of a certain satisfying sensory experience, no. If anything, they'd be a liability, since the numbers take longer to actually be dialed, and a whole lot of phone systems will only recognize touch-tone phones. If, in the event of a disaster, you had to call into any automated systems, you wouldn't know for certain that they'd work with your phone.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 6:57 AM on November 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

The rotary phone is a liability compared to the touch tone.

1) Touch tone does not require electricity either
2) Many Emergency services require touch tones to make decisions
posted by vacapinta at 7:00 AM on November 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

If the exchange doesn't support pulse dialing anymore (many of them don't) then the signal will have to be converted from tone to pulse at some point, and that adds another point of failure to your phone call. You want as few points of failure as possible.
posted by griphus at 7:00 AM on November 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

What famous monster said.
posted by Dasein at 7:00 AM on November 5, 2012

There are also many folks who have encountered issues with rotary phones when using services like Vonage of Comcast digital voice.

In the absence of any known advantages, and the presence of known possible issues, I'd say the rotary loses.
posted by DWRoelands at 7:01 AM on November 5, 2012

Nope, no technological benefit for touch tone vs. rotary lines. Both use power that comes over the telephone line. And at the switching office I'm almost certain it's all just software anyway.

Cell phones are by far your best bet (for the average person) in an emergency. Cell towers have many fewer points of failure compared to your traditional land lines.

If you really want your best chance of communicating in an emergency, befriend a HAM radio operator or become one yourself.
posted by sbutler at 7:04 AM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Cell phones are by far your best bet (for the average person) in an emergency. Cell towers have many fewer points of failure compared to your traditional land lines.

This is simply not true. There is nothing as stone-ax reliable as the American Public Switched Telephone Network. It is over-engineered to a staggering degree and has multiple levels of backup battery/generator plant for power.
posted by Thistledown at 7:08 AM on November 5, 2012 [9 favorites]

If pulse dialing was your only option to get help, you can just tap the number out on the handset switch on the touch-tone phone.
posted by kiltedtaco at 7:08 AM on November 5, 2012

@Thistledown: the same infrastructure that serves your house is going to serve the cell towers too. But whereas you might have 100 houses in a neighborhood, you might only have 1 or 2 cell "towers". Fewer points of failure.

Plus, if you're mobile you can take your cell phone with you out of a disaster area. In the case of Sandy that might mean just walking uptown. You can't take your landline phone with you anywhere.
posted by sbutler at 7:13 AM on November 5, 2012

@sbutler: my iPhone died within a few hours of Sandy taking out power in our area, but our landline phone continued to function as it didn't need charging. Another angle to consider.
posted by Dragonness at 7:19 AM on November 5, 2012

Good on you for keeping a POTS line in case of emergency. However, a rotary phone confers no additional benefit. If for some reason, the touch tone buttons break (and if you have an old-school Model 2500 telephone, this will never happen), you can always tap out rotary pulses on the hook switch (though this will probably not work because many phone companies no longer support pulse dialing).
posted by deanc at 7:20 AM on November 5, 2012

@sbutler: That logic doesn't carry out. In an emergency, if just one or two towers get knocked out it can have a serious impact on the ability of people to place calls (especially since more people will be trying to make calls to contact emergency services, family, etc). Even if phone service is cut to 50% of the houses in that neighborhood, phone service would be available to a majority of people, especially you could just go down to your neighbor's house and use theirs.
posted by orangeseed at 7:24 AM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

@sbutler - full disclosure - I am a telephony engineer and have been working in the industry for over 20 years.

Your points regarding mobility are valid, but I disagree with the rest.

-Cell calls require power sources at both ends.
-Cell calls have dependencies on variable levels of bandwidth. Your 100 houses in a neighborhood can all make calls at the same time - your tower(s) may not have adequate capacity. Every landline has full access to its bandwidth at all times.
-Cell towers are more vulnerable to natural disasters. Central Offices are hardened, usually underground (not always but often), and the major cable feeds are waterproofed. (unrelated - the chemical they use to waterproof the cables can only be cut/thinned by gasoline or some other solvent - getting it out of one's hair is...interesting. It's called 'icky-pick.')
-In the US, although Phase II Wireless (the ability for 911 to locate your telephone's GPS coordinates) has been mandated since 2003, it has not been deployed in all cases, or bandwidth again may not be available to process. If that's the case, emergency services may not be able to find you if you don't know where you are, or you're unable to communicate this. That issue is not the case with landlines.
-Further, 911 centers have the ability to hold a landline open/control it whereas they cannot do so with cell phones.

It is true that in an emergency, mobility may be your best survival tactic, but to say that the cellular network has fewer points of failure and is more reliable is simply not true.
posted by Thistledown at 7:25 AM on November 5, 2012 [14 favorites]

Cell calls require power sources at both ends.

So do landlines. But with a landline I have to get my power from only one source. With a cell you have a battery and can charge from: outlet, car, hand crank, solar, etc...

Cell towers are more vulnerable to natural disasters. Central Offices are hardened, usually underground

It's not the central offices I'm worried about. If one of those goes down you lose both cells and landlines. It's the miles and miles of cables between me and a central office on a landline. And all those little nodes with flimsy covers and a tangle of wires. Definitely not hardened against disaster. I don't know how many drunked idiots I've seen smash one open around here.
posted by sbutler at 7:40 AM on November 5, 2012

[Guys, if you want to keep debating mobile vs. landline telephony in a question that's not about that, you need to take it to email, thank you.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 7:44 AM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

One thing I noticed in this disaster is that at least one person had no way to check whether their home (from which they had evacuated) had had power restored. The traditional method, as far as I'm aware, is to use a landline in combination with an answering machine. If the Answering machine picks up, there's power. If not, there's no power (or no phone connection). So many people now do without either landline or answering machine that there's really no replacement technology until someone invents or kludges a replacement system.

On topic: I can see that there was a time when dial-pulse could still be counted on to run any phone switch.

Now, however, touch-tones will rule the day: every phone switch has been modernized at least that far, and in emergency circumstances, you'll probably have to navigate a phone system anyway-- if not at 911, then perhaps police non-emergency, certainly your power-company's phone system, perhaps a hospital or medical office system, and most likely none of these will cope with dial-pulse, and you'll have to do the traditional wait-for-operator bit. And none of that touches the fact that you have to wait for all those stupid pulses, and, as Louis CK put it, you start to never call people who have 9s and 0s in their number because it takes so long to dial.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:54 AM on November 5, 2012

Oh, dammit.
Thanks for your answers, everyone. We do have a touch tone landline in this house...but I was hoping this would be a win for the Luddites.
That static-y sound you hear is not a bad phone connection, but me sniveling.
posted by BostonTerrier at 10:40 AM on November 5, 2012

I keep a landline phone active solely for use in a disaster or emergency and we have both rotary and touch-tone phones connected, so we're covered either way. Given a choice between one or the other, I'd have to go with the touch-tone because they are nearer to universal use now than the pulse phone.

And speaking as someone who has been through several declared disasters (2 earthquakes greater than 7.0, several major wildfires and a few flash floods), I have quite a bit of experience with communications breakdowns. Although landlines are less likely to fail over a wide area than cell service, they typically take much longer to restore service than cellular. Our landline service remained up through both the Landers and Hector Mine earthquakes (though they did have capacity issues). We tend to lose landline service in major wildfires but our county OES and the providers have COWs in reserve for such occasions and usually have the COWS in place BEFORE the fire takes out the landlines, so any cell interruptions, if any at all, are short-lived. This county and state are better prepared than most states and definitely more prepared than FEMA, so YMMV.
posted by buggzzee23 at 10:48 AM on November 5, 2012

Here's an interesting thing we learned during Hurricane Katrina. If your Central Office is destroyed by the storm, you can't make or receive calls on your POTS line OR your cell phone, even if you've evacuated to another area!

You can, however, text.

AT&T and T-Mobile agreed to a network sharing arrangement in affected areas to facilitate wireless connnections, so there's that.

It's harder for people calling into a disaster area, than for people to call out from one. So have a phone tree thing. Call your mom, and tell her to call everyone to let them know you are okay. Stay OFF the damn phone if you can!

Another thing to be aware of is that dial tone is not infinite. If a lot of people in your area are trying to call at the same time, you may think that you don't have service because you're not getting instant dial tone. Give it a minute or so, it "queues" so the next available bit of dial tone will come to you, it might just take a bit longer than usual.

The way services are restored is as follows:

1. FEMA, Red Cross
2. State and Local Government Entities
3. Banks, Insurance Companies, Hospitals.

Once those folks are up and running, THEN they'll get around to residential services. There's a pre-assigned number from the FCC (I think, it's been a while since I had to deal with this stuff) and each business have to call and get it IN ADVANCE in order to be able to get phone service restored or installed for emergency services.

Another former telephone engineer, ready and willing to answer these important questions.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:06 AM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

The FCC requires that a carrier connect a call from any compatible cell phone to an emergency number. For added communications redundancy in a disaster, you can buy a two prepaid cell phones (for about $15 each), one for GSM (ATT/T-Mobile) and one for CDMA (Verizon/Sprint). Obviously, to be useful, they need to be charged, which is doable for a hurricane but not an earthquake.
posted by akgerber at 12:20 PM on November 5, 2012

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