The new pay phone at Landline Creative Labs, 209 Pearl St. in Ypsilanti, looks ordinary, but it's got a unique twist: thanks to Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit Futel, you don't have to pay to use it at all.
The phone across from the Ypsilanti Transit Center is only the seventh Futel has installed and its first outside the Portland area. Conceived as a combination of social mission and public art project, Futel was born out of the disappearance of the public pay phone.
"As someone who grew up in the '80s, the phone was a piece of urban hardware we never expected to go away," says Futel founder Karl Anderson. Calling the pay phone a "seminal cultural hub," Anderson notes that phones, especially pay phones, were a "key part of hacker history."
"The origins of experimentation with computers and networking revolved around the phone, and the phone was the first computer network most people interacted with," he says.
Anderson works for Ann Arbor-based Duo Security and splits his time between Ann Arbor and Portland. Through Duo co-founder Dug Song, Anderson became acquainted with Mark Maynard, co-owner of Landline.
Anderson was searching for a grant, and Maynard wanted a pay phone at his building. A grant from the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation connected all the pieces, and the Futel phone on Pearl Street became operational in early March.
Futel phones have a dial tone, an operator standing by, and other features that any other pay phone has. Additionally, the phones offer the option for users to set up a voicemail inbox, as well as a directory of important and useful numbers.
The difference from the average pay phone is that Futel is run entirely by volunteers and paid for with donations, and all calls are free.
"What we are is a phone company buying services and then giving them away," Anderson says. "We buy various phone services, from call time to outgoing and incoming phone numbers to 911 service and server time for internet connectivity."
Anderson says people use Futel phones for all sorts of things, often for emergencies, but just as often for social reasons.
"The line between essential and nonessential, between emergency and non-emergency, is not so important. People need to communicate," he says.
To hear an overview of Futel's offerings or set up a voicemail box, call (503) 468-1337. An in-depth interview with Anderson is available at MarkMaynard.com.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo courtesy of Futel.