Jeremy Kuzniar, Pabst Theater Group’s information technology director, has for years struggled to get phone service into certain areas of the Pabst Theater, Riverside Theater and Turner Hall buildings.
A bygone era’s solid construction and durable materials like concrete and steel often interfere with today’s telecommunication signals.
“These venues range in age from 90 to 130 years, and while we take great pride in their historical nature, architectural challenges prohibit conventional thinking,” Kuzniar said.
So recently, after much research, Kuzniar found a better solution: a phone system that runs over the Internet.
Called FreeSwitch, the system helps users build the infrastructure for Internet-based phones. Its lead developer, Anthony Minessale II, lives in Brookfield.
“Anthony’s solution is being used globally — it’s really powerful,” said Pehr Anderson, a co-founder of NBX Corp., an early developer of Internet-based phone systems that was acquired in 1999 by 3Com Corp.
In old downtown buildings, there often is no apparent reason that a wired or cellular phone connection won’t work, Kuzniar said. So, for example, he puzzled over a third-floor office in the Riverside Theater building that overlooks the Milwaukee River — until he landed on Internet phones.
“We had already had data lines and WiFi running in that area so rather than pulling cable for analog phone lines or trying to monkey with cellular signal extenders, which typically don’t work real well, it was a lot easier to just go with these Internet phones,” Kuzniar said.
Now the third-floor office and four other difficult locations have Internet phones — and Kuzniar says the advantages are numerous. Not only were they easier to connect, they’re more flexible, he said.
In fact, the Freeswitch system is so flexible, users could pack the phone from their desk in a suitcase and take it along on a trip to Mexico, Kuzniar said. Upon arrival, all they would need to do is plug it into an Internet connection, he said.
The Freeswitch system gives Kuzniar a lot of control over how calls are routed on the network, menu prompts and the addition of more components such as mobile apps and video conferencing.
“We can make a few changes in our configuration and the next thing you know we’ll be having video on these calls as well as audio,” he said. Users could watch the video from the screen on their phone, or from their computer, in which case they could plug a headset in for audio, he said.
The Internet phones also are much cheaper to operate, Kuzniar said. He doesn’t pay a traditional monthly fee, and the cost for calls is “fractions of pennies per minute,” he said. The FreeSwitch software is open source, meaning it’s free for anyone to use. Minessale and his team make much of their money, he said, by providing consulting services to users.
The market for Internet phones — called Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP — has been growing rapidly during the past five years, according to market researcher IBISWorld. And as more people and businesses adopt them, it has potential to expand by nearly 10% a year through 2019, according to Transparency Market Research.
It is difficult to gauge exactly how many companies have switched to Internet phones, but Vonage — a publicly-held Internet telephony company — said in May that by its calculations as many as 85% of small- and medium-size businesses don’t have phone and other services delivered over the Internet.
It has been necessary to tweak the new system here and there to gain the best voice quality and avoid delays, but there have been no big problems with the five Internet phones that have been installed in the Milwaukee venues, Kuzniar said. He plans to continue adding the phones, but says that, as with any new technology effort, other upgrades will need to happen as well.
“To most successfully deploy them throughout our venues we need a more robust Internet connection and more rules on our router to help prioritize our voice traffic,” Kuzniar said.