Ypsilanti’s free public phone is once again up and running

Not 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 phone was shipped out from Portland, and we’ve once again got free phone service on Pearl Street. For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a bit of background that some friends and I had written up for a yet-to-be launched webpage about the phone….

In March 2018, 209 Pearl Street became home to a free community telephone thanks to a partnership with Futel, a Portland-based activism/public arts entity dedicated to the democratization of telecommunications through the introduction of free payphones into America’s urban centers. “Given the building’s history as a communications node for Michigan Bell back in the 1920s, as well as the proximity to the transit center, it made perfect sense,” said building co-owner Mark Maynard, who had been introduced to Futel founder Karl Anderson through Dug Song, co-founder of Duo Security.

Ypsilanti’s Futel phone, which is the 6th in the Futel network, can be found across the street from the Ypsilanti transit center, on the eastern side of the former Michigan Bell Telephone building at 209 Pearl.

The following conversation between Anderson and Maynard on the history and objectives of Futel, was published on Maynard’s blog in June 2017.


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, we’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 original installation for us, and Ryan Brase, who helped troubleshoot the last time things went to hell. 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.]

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  1. Iron Lung
    Posted July 12, 2018 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    A very nice public service, but it enables people to abstain from buying phones, endangering the business of ATT.

    Also, illegal immigrants might use it.

    You should post and ICE agent to stand by and check the citizenship of every phone user. Deport them without trial, because brown people don’t need trials despite Constitutional guarantees to due process for all people within the borders of the United States, but what do those people know.

    Because we have two systems of justice, one for brown people (no due process) and one for everyone else (get off scott free and smoke all the illegal weed you want, do meth, oxys, or whatnot, you are WHITE AND PROUD and the police won’t touch you. Nor ICE)

    Because, you know, adrenochrome and lizard people. 4204lyfe. Trump4420.

  2. site admin
    Posted July 12, 2018 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    There should be a way to leaving MarkMaynard.com comments through this phone.

  3. iRobert
    Posted July 13, 2018 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Nice segway, Iron Lung. It would also be nice to have a phone I could use to anonymously phone in my riddles to Hannity.

    I also think the site admin’s idea is fantastic. I don’t always have the time Jean does to comment here, so it would be great to take care of my commenting needs over the phone while I’m doing something productive too.

  4. John Brown
    Posted July 13, 2018 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    “Hello, Liberal Militia Hotline. How may I directly your call?”

  5. Elena Herrada
    Posted November 25, 2019 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    Elena Herrada

    There’s a free public phone in “Midtown.” The owner of the Pistons who got unbelievable tax breaks to come to Detroit owns the telephone contracts in the prisons in Michigan. They could really use a free phone. An inmate in the Wayne County Jail who committed suicide had been calling his mother but she could not afford to take his calls

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