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An “amateur phone collective” is making creative use of Linux and special hardware to help people without cellphones stay connected.
As payphones have largely been superseded by cellphones, many cities have begun to remove them. One group in Philadelphia is actually putting them back in, and the new ones are powered by Linux and open-source software. Better yet, you don't have to fumble for coins to use them.
The project is spearheaded by PhilTel, an "amateur phone collective" based in Philadelphia. The project is building a network of public phones in the city that will allow anyone to make free calls within North America, according to Opensource.com. It was inspired by Futel, a similar project in Portland, Oregon.
Why are they doing this when most people are more likely to have a smartphone than loose change in their pockets?
According to PhilTel member Mike Dank, a lot of people don't, either because they can't afford one or because they just value their privacy. "My co-founder on this project does not own a mobile phone himself, so we have first-hand experience with what it is like to not have a phone on your person at all times and how important it is for there to be access to public telephones," he told Opensource.
With pay phones in Philadelphia and many other cities being removed, Dank said that many residents who rely on these phones may be cut off from communications.
The heart of PhilTel is a Linux-based virtual private server running the open-source PBX server Asterisk. This server connects the network of refurbished payphones to the public phone network via a VoIP service through some hardware that interfaces the analog phone to the digital network, and then to a router installed at the site which connects to the PBX server. The network traffic is encrypted with OpenVPN.
To ordinary callers, the phones will work the way they did in the analog era, minus the need to insert coins before making a call. There's a special circuit board that takes the place of the coin acceptor equipment. Making calls will be completely free of charge.
The first phone using the network will make its debut at Iffy Books on December 17, 2022, just in time for those who might want to make those holiday phone calls.
The collective has other plans for the network than just making phone calls. On their homepage, they mention that they'd like to implement a feature to randomly call other PhilTel phones, as well as calls to a network of collectors of vintage phone equipment connected to modern VoIP hardware. This will most likely be the C*NET network.
For PhilTel, it's about maintaining a connection to the "phreaking" community of people exploring phone networks, perhaps the original hacker community.
Linux's open-source nature has made it popular for use in projects that its creators never envisioned. While it can power pay phones, it's also become popular in mobile use, particularly Google's Android. There are other Linux-based mobile operating systems that diehards can experiment with on their devices.
David is a freelance writer based in the Pacific Northwest, but originally hailing from the Bay Area. A journalist by training, he discovered the power of Unix-like operating systems and the command-line interface while learning how to edit video on macOS. He has been using Linux regularly in some form since 2006. David has been able to combine his passion for computing and writing in his career as a freelance writer. His writing has appeared in Techopedia, TMCnet, and the Motley Fool blog network. David holds a B.A. in communication from California State University, East Bay.

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