‘Still needed’: Free phone service sees continued use amid pandemic

Special Reports

Futel phone creator says it is part social service, part art project

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — To most people, payphones are the coin-operated vestige of some long-forgotten age.

But for Karl Anderson, the creator of Futel, they are a means toward providing a needed service to those less fortunate at no cost to them while inspiring the public imagination at the same time.

Anderson takes salvaged telephone equipment, puts new technology in them to make them operate over an internet connection instead of over landline, and puts them out on the street. They are free to use, no coins needed. They may look quite similar to those old payphones, too, except for the Futel logo.

A Futel phone and handwashing station near Ne Killingsworth and 28th Ave. February 24, 2021 (Danny Peterson/KOIN).

“Our main reason for being is to put phones that people can use anytime on the street. And you can use these as a phone, you can walk up to them and make a call. And we also offer other services like voicemail and directories of social services and also interesting destinations you can call, places we found,” Anderson said.

For instance, there’s an ongoing collaborative “audio zine” that users can listen to and respond to from the phones. There’s also live operators that users can talk to.

Established in 2014, there are now 10 Futel phones in Portland. Most are open to the public, although one is located at Right 2 Dream Too, a self-managed homeless encampment near the Moda Center, and is not a public phone, Anderson said. There’s also a Futel phone in Long Beach, Washington, and one each in Detroit and Ypsilanti, Michigan (Anderson said volunteers at those out-of-state locations help to maintain the equipment).

With cellphones and smartphone now dominating the telephone industry, most may consider coin-op phones to be obsolete. Most legacy coin-op phones in Portland have been decommissioned, even if some of them remain at their original spot as a defunct monument to times gone by. But the fleet of free Futel phones surprisingly did not see usage go down during the coronavirus pandemic, Anderson said.

“I quickly learned that it was a service that was very important to people,” Anderson said. “During the pandemic, the need for it did not go down, people still used it.”

Foot-pumped handwashing stations like this one were installed near Futel phones so people could still safely use them during the coronavirus pandemic. February 24, 2021 (Danny Peterson/KOIN).

To adapt to the need, Futel implemented a sanitation program so users can continue to use the phones safely. Anderson and volunteers go out and sanitize the phones, with a cleaning log visible at each phone to show when it was last cleaned. In addition, they’ve installed foot-pedal-powered handwashing stations near the phones, too.

In any one month, there are about 10 people that volunteer for Futel, Anderson said.

The phones are located at various places all over Portland, sometimes appearing facing out to the sidewalk from the perimeter of someone’s property who agreed to have their phone placed there for public use.

There have also been collaborations with artists at specific spots, such as one phone installed on the side of the community media non-profit Open Signal along NE Martin Luther King Boulevard.

The project, called “Hold the Phone,” featured works from various artists as “an interactive and experimental sound art and storytelling project exploring topics vital to inner North and Northeast neighborhoods,” according to Open Signal’s website. For instance, one of the project’s users could dial in to is a series of oral histories from some of Portland’s oldest homeowners in North and Northeast, reflecting on topics such as gentrification and the history of their neighborhood.

Another project accessible from the phone directory is called “Willamette Valley Dream Survey,” which Anderson said “is an interesting art project that has nothing to do with our phone company except I saw a flier on an overpass when I was riding home from work one day in the Southeast industrial district.”

Anderson said he doesn’t really know much of anything about the Dream Survey, or who runs it, other than seeing it on a flier, but it sparked his interest at any rate.

“When I saw that I thought ‘this is perfect for the directory’ because it’s basically a voicemail project, you know. Dream survey. So whenever I see anything like that, whenever I see a phone number that’s kind of creative and fun to call and based on telephone, I put that on there,” Anderson said.

An audio zine called the “Wildcard Line” is also in the Futel directory, which Anderson described as being like a call in radio show except it’s not live.

Futel phones are sanitized regularly by volunteers so users could continue to safely use them. February 24, 2021 (Danny Peterson/KOIN).

“You call in, you can hear what other people have to say and then leave your own message. So you can leave your own response and what we, basically, we curate the responses and then we respond to them and then put them in a digest and release a new episode of the ‘Wildcard Line,'” he said.

The organization operates at a fairly low cost, but they do run on donations to keep the service going each month. There’s a Patreon and merch like t-shirts and zines–the visual kind–that people can buy to help contribute, Anderson said.

In terms of the social service aspect of Futel, the phones are designed to be a “communication tool for anyone,” Anderson said.

“So we have directories like social services, 2-11, Right to Care, Mental Health Crisis line, stuff like that.”

Anderson, who is a computer engineer, said he even heard of one case in which a person was trying to help someone in a medical emergency and had to call 9-1-1. “This person had to run about a mile to get to our phone,” he said. “When this person told me where the event had happened and I realized that to get to our phone, this person had to run past two payphones that were broken but still in place.”

To get the phones up and running, it takes a lot of “jerry-rigging,” Anderson said, with his workshop being the last place broken down payphones see before going to a recycler.

“I’m trying to turn like 10 not-fully-working phones into two working phones at any one time. And then eventually I have to buy a part or buy a phone or something like that.”

The process involves purchasing interface boxes which can convert a landline phone into voice-over-I.P., or VOIP phones. The interface boxes themselves can sometimes be “carrier locked” and unable to be used, Anderson said, so it takes a lot of sleuthing from discount bins or Ebay to get a hold of the right equipment.

Anyone with an old payphone or other equipment they think might have renewed life with Futel can donate it to the non-profit for a tax credit, Anderson said.

A service map of active Futel phones around Portland, Ore., Washington and Michigan. February 27, 2021 (Futel).

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