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Floridians Continue Unplugging, Going Wireless

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) -- Floridians continue to disconnect telephone landlines and go wireless, with the COVID-19 pandemic giving an extra push to the shift.

While some rural areas lag in technology, more wireless devices are in use across Florida than there are residents, according to a new report from the state Public Service Commission.

The commission's annual Report on the Status of Competition in the Telecommunications Industry shows Florida's wireline market is following a national trend in which major carriers --- AT&T, CenturyLink and Frontier --- experienced landline losses in 2020.

In 2020, regular or analog phone lines could be found in 531,512 residences and 854,672 businesses in Florida, down from 613,929 residences and 999,747 businesses in 2019, an overall drop of 14.1 percent.

Since 2017, the percentage of landlines has fallen 44 percent, from 2.49 million to 1.39 million. Two decades ago, about 12 million landlines were in use across Florida.

Meanwhile, Florida, with a population estimated at 21.48 million, had 22 million wireless subscriptions and 4.6 million connections for making calls through technology known as "cable/Voice over Internet Protocol," according to the Federal Communications Commission.

"That does seem like a big number … at first glance," Eric Wooten, of the PSC's Office of Industry Development & Market Analysis, told members of the commission last week.

"And while young children, of course, wouldn't have a (separate wireline) connection, increasingly, children are getting their own smartphones," Wooten said. "But a lot of adults would have another phone for business. There are also some cars, like GM OnStar, that have their own numbers, and increasingly a number of devices, like some smartphones, have their own numbers."

The report noted that the pandemic has increased the demand for internet and wireless technologies.

"High-speed Internet and data services, generically known as broadband, allow customers to do much more than talk: they can send and receive audio, video and other large streams of data to meet many of their business and entertainment needs," the report said. "Broadband facilities not only serve the retail customers, but they also have become the backbone of wired and wireless interoffice data transport."

The report also said the pandemic highlighted the benefits of real-time broadband services, such as sportscasters facing travel restrictions but being able to announce events via satellite without a noticeable delay between transmission and reception.

"John McEnroe announcing the French Open tennis tournament from his home office in Malibu, Calif., nine time zones away, could only be accomplished by using terrestrial broadband facilities to carry his voice across the globe nearly instantaneously," the report said.

While state and federal officials have given increased attention to bringing broadband services to rural communities, the report noted that residential landlines increased in rural areas by more than 1,000, while business lines dropped by nearly 1,800.

Commission Chairman Gary Clark expressed concern about the future maintenance of landline services.

"I certainly appreciate the efforts that our state and our federal government are making on behalf of rural America with the broadband assistance, but I do have some concerns going forward about what is happening as we continue to see the more metropolitan areas have this shift, and what resources the providers are going to have left to respond in rural areas," Clark, a resident of rural Washington County, said. "We've seen this in other areas and other industries, as technology begins to fade, support begins to drop off."

Wooten said programs are underway to assist rural communities. Among other things, Florida is expected to get money through a series of Federal Communications Commission proposals aimed at such things as bolstering broadband.

(©2021 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida's Jim Turner contributed to this report.)

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