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The return of pay phones in Philadelphia? One hacker wants to make it happen

Harold Brubaker, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Business News

Part community service, part nostalgia, and part art project.

That's how Mark Dank describes PhilTel, a project he is organizing to bring old-fashioned pay phones to Philadelphia neighborhoods — with a twist being that they will be free to use for calls in North America thanks to the internet calling.

"Some of the people in the community around this project, they really like the idea of an old pay phone," Dank said. "They like the aesthetics of it. When it comes down to it, a pay phone is a rugged-ized, hardened device. It's a piece of urban furniture that you can put on the street."

In Philadelphia and across America, rising ownership of cell phones — now 97% of the population, according to the Pew Research Center — has led to the disappearance of most pay phones. New York City held a news conference in May when it removed the last street pay phone from Manhattan.

Dank, in an interview Thursday, estimated the number of working pay phones in Philadelphia today at 50. In the 1990s there were 4,800, according to a compilation by The Payphone Project.

Fascination with networks and infrastructure

 

For Dank, 31, who lives in Springfield, Delaware County, and works as a software engineer, the fascination with pay phones is part of a broader interest in hidden urban networks and infrastructure for electric, steam, water, or communications.

"I like complex systems, seeing how everything works together," Dank said during a presentation in September at Iffy Books, on the third floor of a building at 319 N. 11th St., where he plans to install the first PhilTel phone on Dec. 17.

Dank, 31, is also involved in Philly 2600, a computer hacking Meetup, and is editor of Node Zine, which covers what he called "decentralized networking projects." Dank also has a website call Networks of Philly, which has sections on manhole covers, street markings, antennas, kiosks, and cameras.

The inspiration of PhilTel came from a project in Portland, Oregon, where an engineer named Karl Anderson installed the first Futel phone in 2014, according to The Oregonian. Futel now has eight phones in that city, and one each in four other cities, including one as far away as Detroit, according to Futel's website.

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