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There's a free street telephone near S.E. Powell, available to all

RITA A. LEONARD - Karl Anderson, operator of the public Futel telephone system, stands by the first phone booth he set up for free use by those who could not afford a cellphone - at S.E. 13th Avenue at Clinton Street. It appears to be used for visual communications purposes too. While local homeless folks may struggle finding shelter, they can always make a free phone call – thanks to the ingenuity of Karl Anderson. (If that name rings a bell, he was the fellow whose "bicycle boats" wedding THE BEE covered a couple of years ago.)

The "Futel Phone Company" created by Anderson and his friend Elijah St. Clair began with a salvaged phone booth placed on S.E. Clinton Street at 13th Avenue. The second phone was set up to serve residents of the "Right 2 Dream Too" homeless encampment.

Earlier this past year, "Futel" was awarded a $6,000 grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC) to support the operation and install additional public telephones.

Anderson, a software engineer for Duo Security, says he missed the ubiquitous public phone booths that used to dot the city. (There still are a few around, but they do require coins.)

He wondered if such discarded phone booths could be re-purposed for people who can't afford cell phones. He and St. Clair experimented with old Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) audio equipment, office phone software, and salvaged pay phone parts, and eventually created a workable system using an Internet connection to offer free domestic telephone service.

The first "Futel" booth is located on private property, but is publicly accessible from the sidewalk. Anderson and St. Clair themselves are the main "operators" responding, when someone presses "O". Callers are assured that the phone call is free after they press "1". Service are mostly available for domestic calls and for up to half hour periods.

"Providing a public service was a key objective of the project," explains Anderson. "We also offer free voice mail service, through any 'Futel' phone or incoming line."

Occasionally, "Futel" users just want to chat with the operator or ask questions about the system. They appreciate the service, which costs Anderson & St. Clair less than $100 a month to provide. "It's sort of a social experiment to see how people use the service," remarks Anderson. "A $1,000 grant from 'Awesome Portland' helped finance our second 'Futel' phone, and now we have a third one at N.E. 8th & Ainsworth Street. We're hoping to have one in every quadrant of Portland."

Anderson is also looking to find two more sites for his free phone booths, as well as additional sponsors to help support their operation. "We have to make sure the project is sustainable – something we can continue to run for cheap. We're all volunteers here," he grins. "We're trying to create more interactive and artistic things with 'Futel', although we know that at least one 9-1-1 call has been made from the Clinton Street phone, for an overdose emergency on Powell Boulevard.

"Right now, people are making sixty to eighty calls per day with 'Futel'. We're actively trying to secure more funding, or to find someone interested in hosting the system. It's now a 501c3 nonprofit organization, and offers a real service to the community. It also focuses on a nostalgic element of earlier communication, before the proliferation of cellphones," he adds. For more information, hey, use a phone: Call 503/468-1337.

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