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Public pay phones are returning to Philadelphia — this time the calls are free

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

These days, it's hard to imagine life without a cellphone. But remember pay phones? Mike Dank, a technical engineer from Springfield, Pa., is doing his part to bring them back from near extinction.

MIKE DANK: Pay phones are pieces of urban furniture. They just kind of sit there out in the world until somebody comes up and is ready to interact with them.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Dank has loved old pay phones since he was a teenager. Now he co-organizes PhilTel, a phone collective that wants to install free pay phones in Philadelphia.

DANK: I think we take communication for granted these days. Most of us have cellphones in our pocket. We have access to email. We have access to other applications that allow us to get in touch with people.

MARTÍNEZ: The first pay phone went live last week at a bookstore and was very well received.

DANK: We had probably a couple of dozen people actually come out for the event to witness the first call. Everybody who was there was playing with the phone pretty much all night.

FADEL: Dank and his friend Naveen Albert started this project last summer.

DANK: We know a little bit about configuring telephone software. We could probably figure out how to take old pay phones and get them up to date to use in a modern setting.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, they rewire circuit boards to connect to the internet, so no coins needed. The collective is now asking for donated phones, circuit boards, phone booths and other equipment to install more pay phones throughout the city and to support people in their community.

DANK: So I'm really hoping that people who have been marginalized in the city, those who might have a cellphone but they can't afford to keep up with the bill or those in domestic violence situations who just don't have regular access to communications, I really hope that those people will be able to get the assistance they need.

FADEL: One pay phone at a time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.