ST. PAUL — The Nor’Wester Lodge on the scenic Gunflint Trail is about 30 miles outside the city of Grand Marais, Minn., and more than 50 miles from the closest McDonald’s.
Situated by the edge of Poplar Lake, it is even farther from the nearest Target, which according to the retailer’s website is approximately 160 miles away in Virginia, Minn.
What the trail lacks in chain stores and other urban amenities it more than makes up for in natural wonders. The road winds through some 57-miles of the Superior National Forest and serves as an accessway to the serene Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Just don’t expect to be able to make a phone call when driving it.
Like many remote stretches of Minnesota, the Gunflint Trail is largely devoid of cellular reception. And while data shows that Minnesotans are continuing to abandon landline telephones for their wireless and mobile counterparts, the former still has value to some businesses that dot the byway.
"We need something that is going to work no matter what," Nor’Wester co-owner Launa Brandt said recently.
Joking that the lodge is likely one of the few businesses to rely on a copper wire telephone line, Brandt said that she still pays to use one so that "old-fashioned people" who can’t or don’t want to book a room online can make a reservation.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, which tracks U.S. phone usage trends, approximately 57% of households used only cellphones to make calls in 2018. That share has grown steadily since at least the early 2000s.
A similar trend can be observed in Minnesota. According to the most recently available data from the Federal Communications Commission, the state had approximately 2.17 million subscriptions for telephone line service in 2017. That figure accounts for subscriptions both to traditional landline phone services and voice over internet protocol phone services, or VoIP, which function similarly but use optical fiber or other technologies to route calls through the internet instead of copper wires.
By comparison, there were approximately 5.8 million subscriptions for mobile phone service in Minnesota that year.
Minnesota Telecom Alliance president Brent Christensen said that landline and VoIP users are scattered throughout the state and tend to either be older in age or have younger children. He said that some households maintain them simply because they are bundled together with other services that internet providers offer.
"There’s still a lot of people that want or need a landline at home, and businesses still need them," Christensen said recently.
Businesses and government entities made up approximately 1.14 million of Minnesota's telephone line subscriptions in 2017, according to the FCC. While both consumer and commercial subscription counts have fallen over the years, the number of VoIP subscriptions actually rose slightly from 955,000 in 2016 to a little more than a million in 2017.
That increase, Christensen said, can be partly attributed to the industry's gradual removal of copper telephone lines from service. In their place, he said that many companies are installing fiber optics.
"It used to be the internet went over landline phones," he said, referencing dial-up technology. "Now telephones go over the internet."
Longtime landline users shouldn't expect a change in quality or cost as a result of the transition, Christensen said, the latter being subject to regulatory price controls.
Even as mobile technology continues to evolve, landline phones can still be of benefit. If a landline call to 911 is disconnected or interrupted, Christensen said for example, emergency dispatchers can trace its location more easily than they can for cell phones.
The Minnesota Department of Public Safety declined to comment on the ability of emergency dispatchers to determine a caller's location.
"We stress that people need to be able to provide their location information to 911, regardless of the type of device they are calling from," department spokeswoman Amber Schindeldecker said in a statement.
A less obvious benefit specific to copper wire telephone lines might be that they are less susceptible to power outages. Christensen said that older, metal wire phone lines are typically powered at central locations that are required by law to have backup generators powerful enough to maintain service for a day or more.
He said that VoIP systems, on the other hand, tend to be powered on-site and generally have only enough battery storage to last for a few hours.