Making the Connection: Cordless Phones Get Smart

Manufacturers are working to integrate cordless phones better with your smartphone and household appliances. That means that the price on basic cordless phones continues to drop, but the few competitors that remain in the market keep the connected models pricey.

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Smartphones are ubiquitous, and landlines face talk of extinction, so you could be forgiven for thinking that the days of the cordless phone might be numbered. However, manufacturers of cordless phones aren’t calling it quits and are shifting focus to other areas of the consumer-electronics market.

“Smartphones are great,” says Brad Pittmon of VTech, which also makes AT&T-branded phones, “but they don’t do one thing perfectly.”
Six experts with whom we spoke agree that the thing that cordless phones do perfectly—or at least better than cellphones do—is provide better call quality.

Nevertheless, manufacturers want to tie the cordless phone better to other means of communication that are in the household, particularly your smartphone. Beyond USB charging stations that can be found on the base unit of the latest cordless phones, manufacturers now enable connectivity that goes beyond simply letting you receive smartphone calls on your cordless phone. You now can be alerted to incoming text messages via your cordless phone, block calls to your smartphone (and cordless phone) and even run Google Android to surf the Internet.

Despite these advancements, Nadra Maxwell of RCA says the shelf space for cordless phones at retailers is dwindling. The good news is that you can buy a basic cordless phone that delivers interference-free Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications, or DECT, technology and a range of up to 500 feet for as little as $14.95. (Three years ago, you had to pay at least $19.99 for an entry-level cordless phone that had a comparable range.) Cordless phones that provide connectivity to other devices, however, cost $100 more than do basic models, and manufacturers tell us that connected models will remain high-priced.

SOLDIER ON. According to market-research company The NPD Group, sales of cordless phones slipped to 11.4 million in 2013, which represents an 18 percent decrease from 2011. Following that trend, Pittmon tells Consumers Digest that VTech’s sales dropped by 17 percent since 2011. Although they didn’t provide numbers, Panasonic and RCA also say their sales dropped during that time. (Uniden, which is the other main provider of cordless phones, didn’t respond to repeated calls.)

According to a Federal Communications Commission report from June 2013, 102 million landlines operated in the United States as of 2012, but that number is down 28 percent from 2008.

The movement away from landlines to cellphones appears to be a factor in AT&T’s July 2013 announcement that it would end landline service by 2020.

Furthering Connectivity With Cordless Phones

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AT&T didn’t respond to our requests for comment, but John Bergmayer of Public Knowledge, which is a consumer advocacy group for the technology market, says consumers shouldn’t worry. Other landline options should be available even with AT&T out of the market, he tells Consumers Digest. Bergmayer says that in the next few years, companies also increasingly will provide other types of phone service for homes, such as fiber-optic or Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).

Ross Rubin, who is a telecommunications analyst at consultancy Reticle Research, says that even if your cordless phone doesn’t have a built-in plug for VoIP connections, most service providers can supply an adapter. Also, if your service provider takes away your landline, you still can use a cordless phone through VoIP as long as you have Internet service. Should your Internet connection fail, that likely means that phone service also will be lost, but Rubin says “millions of consumers” find VoIP to be an acceptable alternative to landlines.

According to Chris Miller of IdoNotes, which is an independent online reviewer of electronics, the trade-off of switching to VoIP service from a landline now is performance. He says VoIP eats up a lot of bandwidth, so you might be subject to choppy or dropped calls. However, both Miller and Rubin say they expect bandwidth to improve in the next few years.

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