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Man brings back pay phones at no cost to help 'people who can’t afford a cellphone or a phone bill'

Mike Dank is the co-founder at PhilTel, a volunteer organization that is setting up free-to-use payphones in Philadelphia.

Man brings back pay phones at no cost to help 'people who can’t afford a cellphone or a phone bill'
Representational Cover Image Source: Getty Images | Jericka Cruz / EyeEm

If you're someone who misses the good old days when payphones were pretty popular you might just witness a nostalgic comeback. A volunteer collective is coming together to bring back the payphone without any extra charge, reports The Washington PostPhilTel is a volunteer organization that launched in June 2022 and according to its co-founder Mike Dank, "there are lots of people who can’t afford a cellphone or a phone bill." Dank was inspired by a group called Futel that installed 10 public pay phones that worked through broadband internet connections around Portland. The best part about them was that they were free of charge and anyone could use them, so Dank thought to set the same thing up in Philadelphia where it could be useful to people who need access to phones.

Cover Image Source: Getty Images | Photo by Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo
Cover Image Source: Getty Images | Photo by Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo



“It was just a really cool idea, and I wondered if I could do something similar in Philadelphia," Dank said. "Pay phones have unfortunately been pretty much phased out — we only have about 50 still working in Philadelphia. I thought it would be great to bring them back." He believes the pay phones could help homeless people and low-income families. Dank also feels it might be particularly helpful for people in abusive situations where their partner has control over their cell phone. "I've heard about situations of domestic violence where a partner tries to control everything, including cellphone use," he said. "There are people who want to get help, but they don't have a way to communicate. Free pay phones on the street would help to resolve that."


The collective's first free-to-use payphone was launched on December 17, 2022, at Iffy Books. The bookshop offers "a small selection of books and zines on hacking, free culture, gardening, and adjacent topics. At Iffy Books, we believe in empowering people to be less reliant on big tech companies," according to its website. Steve McLaughlin, the owner of Iffy’s Books, has faith in Dank's initiative. "Mike's a good customer and has been coming to the store since we opened," the 37-year-old said. "I'm always looking for creative ideas to shift our culture, and a free pay phone is a great example of shared resources. I was all in."

Getty Images | Photo by Justin Pumfrey
Getty Images | Photo by Justin Pumfrey


"Lots of younger people today have never used one," Dank chimed in. "They might walk past one and not even notice that they were looking at a pay phone. They seem irrelevant. But I'm hoping to change that." And for those who grew up around payphones, he hopes they can get a nostalgic kick out of this effort.


The 31-year-old technical engineer from Springfield also told CNN that the initiative was "half art project, half community service. It's kind of like a cool, nostalgic novelty" which will let users "relive the days when payphones were everywhere," he said, adding that "it's a sort of labor of love." Dank is positive that the project he started with his friend, Naveen Albert, will become as popular as the free phones in Portland. He hopes to have a free payphone in every neighborhood in Philadelphia, so that "any place you are, you're maybe like, you know, 20 minutes to a half-hour walk from one."

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