Ypsilanti once again has a payphone… only this time it’s free

Last summer, I posted an interview here with a fellow in Portland by the name of Karl Anderson. Anderson, as you may recall, had formed an activism/public arts entity by the name of Futel with the goal of democratizing telecommunications through the introduction of free payphones into America’s urban centers. Well, as you may also recall, Anderson and I talked about the possibility that, one day, Ypsilanti might have a Futel phone of its own. And, today, I’m happy to announce that Ypsi’s free Futel payphone is officially open for business.

[above: Ypsilanti’s Futel phone can be found across the street from the Ypsilanti transit center, on the East side of the former Michigan Bell Telephone building at 209 Pearl.]

For those of you were are hearing about this for the first time, I’d encourage you to go back and read our earlier iterveiw, which gets quite a bit of depth. As I know most of you won’t, though, here are a few brief excerpts, which should give you at least a rough sense of what Futel is all about, and what you can expect from the new Ypsi phone.


MARK: OK, let’s talk about Futel. What’s the idea behind it?

KARL: I have a prepared statement which I think should fully explain everything”

“At Futel, we believe in the preservation of public telephone hardware as a means of providing access to the agora for everybody, and toward that goal we are privileged to provide free domestic telephone calls, voicemail, and telephone-mediated services. We do not judge the motivations of our users, or who they choose to call; if they don’t have someone to call, we can provide a presence on the other end. Denial of telephony services has long been a tactic used against undesirable populations, and our devices will counteract that. But more importantly, we will help to establish a new era of communication, one in which reaching out is not only desirable, but mandatory.”

“To what extent are our interactions mediated by intelligent machines? Who is doing the talking when we let them decide who we interact with and what constitutes appropriate topics of communication? We believe that the time has come to greet each other not with our heads down, staring at our hands and begging for the permission of the minds that oversee our networks, but proudly, standing tall, with our eyes open and aware of our surroundings.”

“We are primarily driven by the basic needs that we see on the streets every day, by giving something away that is cheap for us but valuable to the recipient. But we hope that we can also build a tower of Babel on top of that, a monument of telephones and switching networks and cascading psychological structures which will give the community something else as well, something we may not appreciate until it has forever changed us.”

MARK: And how did all of this come to you? Was there something specific that made you think, “It’s imperative, for all the reasons outlined above, that we bring public phones back”?

KARL: The original reason was mainly just that I like payphones. Public phones were part of the cyberpunk urban furniture that we didn’t expect to go away, and part of hacker history. I like street hardware, public keyboards, the whole thing. And then there was a guy who mowed my lawn, but he couldn’t always keep his phone paid up. He would push his mower around the neighborhood, but some days I wouldn’t be home, or I wouldn’t need my lawn mowed. I thought he might find it helpful if he had a phone and a voicemail account. And my street has a lot of foot traffic, there’s a light rail station down the block and a lot of tent encampments around. I thought it would be interesting to see how it would get used. I just repeated all those reasons to myself until I was convinced. It might not make the most sense, but other people have continued to contribute over the years, I use that as validation.

MARK: Speaking of the history of hacking, were you ever in envolved in phone hacking, or phreaking?

KARL: Not me! I didn’t even get a modem until 1990, and, while I did visit some scummy BBSs, I was really just an outside observer when it came to that particular scene. I may or may not have enjoyed using a red box, though.

MARK: Where was your first install, and has the vision for Futel changed at all as a result of what you’ve experienced thus far?

KARL: The first Futel phone is in Portland, in front of my house. I expected it to get used, given the neighborhood I’m in, but I’ve been surprised by how much activity it gets. But, to your question, no, the vision remains pretty much the same. We’re both a social service organization and a public art project… I should add, however, that we realize all communities are different, and, for that reason, we want to allow flexibility when it comes to how the phones are configured. It depends on what the host might want, so long as the phones provide free calls…


MARK: So, speaking of operators, is scaling going to be difficult as you add more phones, and thus users to the system?

KARL: We have several operators, but we can always use more. I’d love to have more in other timezones. But, to answer your question, we don’t always get every call. If you don’t get an operator, though, you can always try again. Eventually someone will call you, if you stick around…. When an operator doesn’t pick up, you’re prompted to leave a message, and you can leave your voicemail box number, if you want a reply.

MARK: If someone out there happens to read this, and wants to find out about being an Futel operator, is there an online application or something? And can people sign up for limited shifts? Could someone, for instance, sign up for 9:00 to midnight EST the first Friday of every month?

KARL: We don’t currently have limited shifts, but operators don’t need to respond to every call. The system rings every operator, and, whoever wants to pick up the call just indicates their intention before being connected. As for prospective operators, they’re always welcome to apply. All they have to do is call an existing operator from any Futel phone! The handbook is currently only printed in issue one of (the Futel zine) Party Line, but we could set up an orientation conference call…


MARK: OK, one of the choices (on the Futel menu) is voicemail. Can people actually set up voicemail through Futel?

KARL: Yes, and voicemail can be left or checked from the incoming line. We would like to be able to give out numbers that would go directly to voicemail accounts someday – the caller wouldn’t know that you didn’t have a phone…

MARK: OK, so there’s also a reference to conference calls. What’s that all about?

KARL: It’s basically a party line.

MARK: And the “wildcard line”?

KARL: That is an audio zine, basically call and response. Users can contribute from any Futel phone. Currently, you can only hear it from the phone, although I plan to put them on the net when I get time.

MARK: So people are prompted to say something… tell a story, describe what’s happening where they are, etc… and your intention is to aggregate all of that into an audio zine that could, one day, be shared online, as well as through Futel phones.

KARL: Two episodes are already shared through the phone. I like to give phone users something special, so they get everything first. But you can hear at least one episode on the incoming line – 503 HOT 1337.

MARK: So, here in Ypsi, assuming we move forward, how much flexibility would we have in configuring our menu?

KARL: We will be making a custom menu for Ypsi. We really should get the mayor’s number in there, and relevant social services, whatever else you want. The only real constraint is that it’s a slow process right now to push changes.

MARK: Can you give us an idea of the kinds of numbers you’re sharing on other Futel phones?

KARL: Besides the mayor, we have a directory of social service numbers and a directory of amusing numbers. The social service numbers are things like 211, a transportation service called Call To Safety, bus schedules, things like that. The amusing numbers include the Apology Line, which is one of our inspirations, it’s basically voicemail discussions as social art.

MARK: What about emergency calls? Is there any risk, given how the system is configured, that emergency calls may not go through? I mean this is all contingent on the wireless being operational and the internet being up, right? I’m just wondering if there’s any responsibility, when you place a public phone outside, to ensure that it connects… Is that something that you’ve thought about?

KARL: There is always risk, and there is great responsibility. If the power or net goes down, the phone goes down. All I can say is that reliability is the first priority, we monitor and notice when a phone isn’t connecting, and we test emergency calls with each release, and we’ve been more reliable than other payphones in the area. One user had to run over a mile and pass two non-working phones to use ours. One user had difficulties and got an operator to make a call. I do fear that someone will spend time someday trying to use a non-working Futel phone in an emergency. But I am certain that it is a net positive, the phones have been used to get emergency medical services at least twice…

So, with that, I’d like your thoughts on what we should ask Anderson to consider adding to the Ypsi menu the next time he does a system-wide update? Should we link directly to the providers of community services, like the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, Community Action Network, SOS Community Services, or Ozone House? And should we have a link to a local weather forecast? Or how about a suicide prevention hotline? And how about arts, culture, history? For instance, in New York City they have phone booths where people can hear the stories of immigrants. Could we have a local historian record an abbreviated history of Ypsilanti? Or what if we set up a number where Futel users could hear something by a random local band? Now that we have this platform, how would we like to use it? I mean being able to make free phone calls is awesome on its own, but what else could we use the Futel platform for?

[above: An amateur male model, hired from Craigslist, pretends to use Ypsilanti’s first Futel phone.]

One last thing… It should be noted that Ypsi’s Futel phone, which is hosted by the folks at Landline Creative Labs, was funded in part by a grant from the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation. Also, the phone wouldn’t be online right now if not for David Gustofson, who handled the installation for us. And, of course, we wouldn’t be having this discussion right now, were it not for the vision and drive of Karl Anderson, the founder of Futel.

[above: Futel’s Karl Anderson tests equipment at 209 Pearl Street.]

This entry was posted in Art and Culture, Ypsilanti and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Quinn
    Posted March 14, 2018 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    So let’s say a person without a phone gets off a bus at the Ypsi Transit Center and needs to make a call. What is the most simple way to direct people to the phone and how to use it? I’m thinking about how to spread the word about this on a 1 page flyer at Ypsi Gathering Space or the downtown library.

  2. Nick
    Posted March 14, 2018 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    This is (wonderful) news to me! Does Futel do any form of outreach to spread the word about their free public phones? Glad to see more local coverage like this.

  3. Posted March 14, 2018 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Quinn. It’s pretty visible from the transit center, and people are already using it. I suspect word will travel pretty fast. I do, however, like the idea of letting people know at places like the warming center. That’s a great idea…. And let me know if you have thoughts as to which social services organizations should be included in the menu.

  4. Posted March 14, 2018 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

    The next time Karl is in town, I’ll arrange for a ribbon cutting event and some kind of panel discussion or something , where we can discuss all of this in more detail.

    As for Karl’s outreach efforts, Nick, I think they’re pretty limited, given that Futel has no revenue to speak of and the setup and upkeep of the units costs money. With that said, I know that, as Karl travels, he’s always looking for promising spaces that meet his criteria. But setting one of these units up, and servicing it, isn’t exactly trivial…. So, if you know agencies with grant money available, let Karl know, OK?

  5. M
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    When you think about how much our society is now geared toward people who have access to cell phones, it’s easy to see how those don’t have access can get left behind. This is a small step in the right direction.

  6. Total babe
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    Your amatuer model is so hot

  7. Citywatch
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    I really, really want to think of this as a positive thing because it is. The other part of me, the cynical part, worries that humans will find a way to screw up even the best of intentions and coolest inventions. I hope this great service survives the test of time.

  8. Shane Davis
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    I am going to use it today.

  9. Lynne
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    I am going to use it the next time I take the bus!

  10. Iron Lung 2
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    Nothing is free. Who is paying for this?

    Or did I miss it in the text. I am just curious.

  11. Jean Henry
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    IL–There’s a link in the text to a longer interview that covers that. My recollection is this is a non-profit effort. Tech innovation facilitates the back end, but its still will require constant upkeep to remain functional. The Ypsi phone was paid for by a $1000 Awesome Foundation grant. My guess is it’s up to the community to keep it functioning and serviceable on our end, but the back end tech support is centralized. It’s a cool thing. One can only hope the community will be able to keep it.

  12. Jean Henry
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    oops. the link in the text is about landline, not Futel. Maybe Mark will fix it.

  13. Iron Lung 2
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    “My recollection is this is a non-profit effort.”

    That doesn’t mean it is free.

  14. Jean Henry
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    In no way did I mean to imply that it’s free. I’m not an idiot. I work with non-profits. I know they are businesses. What I meant is that its intention is not to be profitable. I don’t know their funding source beyond the Awesome Foundation. As I recall there was some question about whether ongoing technical support would be sustainable without added funding.
    If you have a point, make it. Mark did two other interviews about this. I’m sure he can address your concerns.

  15. Iron Lung 2
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    My point is that it is unclear who is paying for it.

    I was interested in knowing because it is unclear from the post.

  16. Jean Henry
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    It’s a 501c3 that relies on grants, donations of cash and equipment, and volunteer operators

  17. site admin
    Posted March 16, 2018 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    The phone shell, the phone itself, the cables run to the phone, and the equipment Karl installed on the Landline internet network were all funded by the Awesome grant, as was the shipping from Portland. The monthly internet service that phone calls are made over is paid by Mark, Jesse and Dan, the owners of Landline Creative Labs. They also paid for the phone shell to be mounted and for the cables to be run. Futel, which is a volunteer-run non-profit, handles all of the system maintenance on the backend, etc.

    Jean, which link is it that you think is incorrect?

  18. Donald Harrison
    Posted March 16, 2018 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    Mark, if you need a how-to video to show people how to use a pay phone, lemme know.

  19. Angela Barbash
    Posted March 16, 2018 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    Love it, thank you!

  20. Jean Henry
    Posted March 16, 2018 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    M— weird. When I clicked on link to previous interview re Futel above it went to the piece on the Landline remodel. Now it goes to the correct post. Probably me. I was on phone. I make a lot of mistakes. I’m just hoping it’s idiocy not early onset dementia.

  21. Iron Lung 2
    Posted March 16, 2018 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    “The monthly internet service that phone calls are made over is paid by Mark, Jesse and Dan, the owners of Landline Creative Labs.”

    Thank you. I was just curious as to how this would be sustained. It will be interesting to keep logs on how often it is used. Information like that would help similar efforts in other places.

  22. Someone on Facebook
    Posted March 16, 2018 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    This is great. When I was a parking lot attendant, folks would sometimes need to make calls and ask us for help (near the Ann Arbor bus Depot) – we could only offer our personal cell phones. You’d be surprised (or not) on how few people want to let a stranger borrow their phone.

  23. connie
    Posted March 16, 2018 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    Donald Harrison……Please post the video of how to use a rotary phone ive forgotten which finger to use! Thank you in advance. smiles………connie

  24. site admin
    Posted March 28, 2018 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Concentrate has the story today.


  25. Rob Rassa
    Posted April 2, 2018 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    Mark, I just tried to use the phone yesterday and it is not working. there is no dial tone. what’s going on?

  26. Posted April 3, 2018 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    I’m home sick in bed right now, but I’ll try to check it out as soon as I can. Thanks for letting me know.

  27. Posted April 8, 2018 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Sorry it’s taken me a while to get back to you, but I did check the phone out earlier this week, and it is broken. I tested the lines, though, and it wasn’t an issue on the back end, which means that it’s the phone itself. The good news is, Futel is shipping a new phone from Oregon. The bad news is, it may take a while. As for how it broke, we’re not sure.

  28. dogmatic dolt
    Posted September 8, 2019 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    Aloha, Walked by the phone yesterday. Still doing wonderful. When did you put in the porta potty? All I can say Mark, is thank you for all the work you do to make Ypsi more livable. You are truly living the Aloha way of life.

  29. dogmatic dolt
    Posted November 21, 2019 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Aloha, Futel keeps marching on


4 Trackbacks

  1. […] A-ma-zing! Kudos to the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation for funding this project and of course Karl Anderson for pushing the agenda forward – read all about this project here. […]

  2. […] A-ma-zing! Kudos to the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation for funding this project and of course Karl Anderson for pushing the agenda forward – read all about this project here. […]

  3. […] A-ma-zing! Kudos to the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation for funding this project and of course Karl Anderson for pushing the agenda forward – read all about this project here. […]

  4. […] too long after we got the free public phone up and running across from Ypsi’s transit center this past spring, something terrible happened, and it died. Well, thanks to our friends at Futel, a replacement […]

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