Telecommunications >> VoIP is for Victory

Voice over the Internet Protocol may now seem ubiquitous but some schools are definitely doing it better than others.

To put it simply, VoIP is cropping up everywhere. To deem it the "next big thing" would only be to reiterate what other higher ed technology watchers (including the editors of this magazine) have been saying for years. Still, as the technology that drives voice over the Internet protocol continues to come of age, a number of colleges and universities have implemented it in new and exciting ways, constantly blazing high-tech trails. In particular, Dartmouth College (NH), the University of Arkansas, the University of Evansville (IN), the College of Biblical Studies (TX), and Florida Atlantic University each have innovated with VoIP. Here are their stories.

Beam Me Up

Captain Picard of Star Trek fame would fit right in these days at Dartmouth College (NH), where nifty new VoIP-enabled wireless devices are all the rage. The devices, fresh off the production line at Vocera Communications (www.vocera.com), are modeled after the badge-like communication devices that Picard and his colleagues sported as they traveled the galaxy. The Vocera badges, however, are designed to be worn on a string around a user’s neck, and they use speech recognition software to allow for hands-free calling. Users just utter the name of the person they’re trying to reach and the device connects the call; no phone numbers are required. The badges send and receive voice traffic wirelessly, but do it over the Internet, essentially employing wireless VoIP.

Larry Levine, CIO and associate provost for Information Technology, describes the badges as “way cool,” and says they have taken off on the Hanover, New Hampshire campus. In a beta that began in October 2004, students can lease the phones from Dartmouth for $15 per month (they’d cost $300 apiece otherwise), and since anyone at Dartmouth is allowed to make and receive an unlimited number of local and long-distance calls, use of the badges, even to place calls, is free. What’s more, because the Vocera devices are tiny speakerphones, the quality of the voice transmission is quite good; my recent call to Levine’s own device actually sounded better than a call to the VoIP phone on his desk.

And for the cautious...

NOT EVERY COLLEGE AND UNIVERSITY is rushing into VoIP. Take the University of San Francisco (CA). In 2004, when it was time for the school to replace its 15-year-old PBX, IT officials decided against the latest IP-based equipment, opting for a new $12.5 million system that lets the institution transform slowly from traditional voice systems to VoIP. The new system is comprised of two solutions from NEC (www.nec.com) that support digital voice transmission and IP communications simultaneously, as well as a number of new routers and access switches from Cisco. Specifically, these products are a NEAX 2400 IPX communications system, and a NEAXMail AD-120 messaging system.

Tracy Schr'eder, CIO at USF, says that the decision to slowly transition to VoIP reflected a decision on the part of her staffers not to commit to an expensive campuswide technology overhaul without a period of trial-and-error.

“If we had just run with VoIP and not done the due diligence of what it would have cost, we could have moved more quickly but faced a failed implementation,” she explains. Now, she adds, “We’ll have a stable solution that meets our needs and gives us the ability to do the cool stuff when it’s time and when it’s appropriate.” According to Schr'eder, for the time being, USF will run its voice communications over traditional Time Division Multiplexing (TDM) technology that historically has enabled telephone

companies to migrate from analog to digital on all-long-distance trunks. Later this year, however, when two new buildings on campus are completed, USF will experiment with VoIP there, and support both systems on the same infrastructure. In the meantime, campus technologists gradually will test enhanced features on both digital and IP-based networks, including unified messaging, call forwarding, e-mail-based voicemail, and more. In the end, USF d'esn’t expect to save much money on its new network, Schr'eder says, but it will achieve greater redundancy and a modern, feature-rich telephone system: “This will be a much higher-capacity network with more reliability and more stability,” she concludes.

“These things make you feel like you’re part of Star Trek, but the funny thing is that they really are great,” he said during that call, and I could even hear birds chirping in the background as he spoke. “The technology itself is so wonderful that when you’re using the devices, they feel just like a headset or cordless phone, and you forget that they’re working on VoIP.”

As Levine indicates, the Vocera devices are part of a larger wired and wireless VoIP implementation. Also last year, in a program designed solely for freshman at first, the school rolled out free softphones—software that allows users to make and receive phone calls on PCs or PDAs. Under this program, calls will be routed over the school’s converged voice/data and video network, and will be free to students whether the calls are long-distance or local. For the initial rollout in the fall of 2004, Dartmouth distributed Windows-based IP SoftPhone solutions from Cisco (www.cisco.com), and plans to distribute clients for the school’s Pocket PC, Palm, and Mac users.

Though Dartmouth meted out its softphone clients in rounds of 200 to the freshmen, Levine says the school plans to extend the service to all other students, faculty, and staff members by the end of the year. He adds that both the softphone and the Vocera programs were closely tied to the school’s 2004 decision not to charge for long-distance phone calls, which coincided with the extension of a wire-based VoIP network into the wireless environment. Thanks to carefully placed 802.11b access points, all of these wireless technologies work everywhere on campus—even in places where cellular service is compromised. The coverage may not be galactic, but by today’s standards, it’s truly impressive.

Loud and Clear

VoIP took a different form at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, where IT officials recently implemented the technology to achieve lower long-distance phone costs—both for the school itself and for parents and friends of students, as well. The product, Click-to-Talk from CrystalVoice (www.crystalvoice.com), is a program that, once downloaded from the school’s Web site, enables visitors to convert their home computers into VoIP telephones. To use it, a visitor opens the software, plugs in a standard external microphone or telephone handset, heads for the Web site to input an extension number on campus, and quite literally,clicks a button to dial. It’s that simple.

The CrystalVoice solution was part of an exhaustive effort in 2004 to convert the entire Pine Bluff campus to VoIP. As the school’s traditional telecommunications equipment became obsolete, technologists decided that the most cost-effective solution would be to replace the old PBX by running voice and data over the same fiber-optic lines. Officials invested an undisclosed amount in VoIP servers from Cisco, bought VoIP phones for all users, and set up an annual technology fee to cover the cost of the equipment. Next came CrystalVoice. Willette Totten, assistant director of Technical Services, says she pushed this technology as a wayto level the playing field and give her school a chance to compete with other institutions for homegrown talent.

“It’s no secret that, being here in rural Arkansas, our students don’t have a lot of money,” she explains, noting that the Click-to-Talk service is included in the annual fee, and that students are allowed to receive an unlimited number of CrystalVoice calls. “This technology, and the ability to enable our students to talk to family members for free, was our way of giving [the students] another reason to enroll at Pine Bluff.”

So far, the overall investment has paid huge dividends. While the conversion to VoIP cost nearly as much as the school would have spent to fix its PBX, the university has seen overall long-distance fees drop precipitously; now that all faculty and staff members make their calls via Internet, long-distance bills have virtually disappeared. Recently, says Totten, interest in the university has shot through the roof. She declines to reveal specific enrollment stats, but notes that more students enrolled on her campus this past year than in any other year in the school’s history. And for the first time, she adds, the school has recruited two foreign students: two Canadians, who (predictably) now talk to family members almost daily.

At U Arkansas-Pine Bluff, students from modest rural backgrounds can keep in touch with their families for free, via VoIP—and admissions staff make sure that applicants know it.
Why Save When You Can Earn?

At the University of Evansville (IN), technologists have turned to VoIP not only to save money, but to make it. The effort began in the fall of 2003, when the school set out to renegotiate its age-old contract for the PBX-based Centrex system from telecom giant SBC ( www.sbc.com). After lengthy discussions about reducing the school’s monthly $25,000 bill, SBC issued its final offer: a 10-year deal for the same technology that the school had been using, with a 5 percent price increase across the board. Not surprisingly, Jeff Wolf, VP of Fiscal Affairs/Administration, rejected the contract outright, and began to pursue other options. After researching some of the benefits of VoIP, he approached Cisco for a second opinion. The vendor responded with its own wide-ranging solution: a VoIP server, and 1,700 VoIP phones that would allow the school to avoid the 5 percent increase, and set up new features and revenue streams, to boot. For the very same $25,000 per month, the school leased Cisco equipment and signed up for the vendor’s Unified Messaging Service, which enables features such as call forwarding, and a new voice recognition technology through which students and faculty members can read and respond to e-mail via voicemail. And because the new Cisco system is plugged into the school’s data network, users can access phone directories from the LCD screens of their Cisco 7960 Series telephones, eliminating the need for paper-based phonebooks all together.

“VoIP has changed just about everything about the way our people communicate,” says Wolf, who adds that while students previously received new phone numbers every year, they now are assigned one telephone number when they enroll and they keep it until graduation. “It’s really been wonderful to watch,” he adds.

Yet, all of the new features pale in comparison to the crowning benefit of the newsystem: the opportunity for additional revenue streams based on digital advertisements that appear on telephone display screens periodically throughout the day. Thanks to the marketing efforts of Halo Branded Solutions (www.halo.com), the university can now sell ads to local businesses such as pizza parlors, car repair shops, and more. Businesses can purchase advertisements to run on the phones daily, and included in their advertising fee is the option to run special promotions via programmable buttons on the VoIP phones: For instance, a button can instantly connect students to their favorite pizzeria, to snag the $10 pizza special.

Currently, the school is ironing out the specifics of its advertising program. But when the program gets off the ground, says Wolf, the school will run about three ads per day, fetching the university an extra $18,000 each year. Down the road, if the school opts to expand this effort, Wolf estimates that the program could bring in two to three times that amount. One of the school’s biggest concerns about the advertising program is to make sure the technology d'esn’t inundate students with marketing messages. With this in mind, Wolf says that whenever the school chooses to launch the ads, he will monitor the effort closely, and conduct frequent surveys to track usage and make certain that the information is something students want.

At the University of Evansville, technologists have turned to VoIP not just to save money, but to make it via digital advertisements appearing on campus telephone screens daily.
Natural Selection

Ironically, evolution is what forced officials at the College of Biblical Studies (TX) to turn to VoIP. In 2003, after the school purchased new buildings, officials decided that VoIP would be a more sensible and cost-effective communications strategy than continuously moving and reconfiguring their traditional phone system. In the past, such growing pains have forced technologists to unplug every user from a phone network, transport the entire system to a new building, then set up the whole kit and caboodle again. With VoIP, however, the process would be a cinch for CBS—adding new users would be as easy as copying a text file. And as long as new buildings had Ethernet, users could handle moves themselves by simply plugging IP telephones into the appropriate ports.

“As the school continued to grow, we wanted a communications technology that was so straightforward we could let users handle it to a certain degree by themselves,” says Shane Boothe, director of Information Technology. “We’re a small school and we don’t have a huge IT staff, so for us, given our situation of constant flux, the realities of VoIP just made the most sense.”

Boothe and his colleagues turned to a VoIP solution from Zultys (www.zultys.com). For an investment of roughly $125,000, the school purchased a Zultys MX250 VoIP server, as well as 87 Zultys Zip 4x4 VoIP telephones. Next, IT officials set out to make improvements to the school’s existing network, to ensure that the school had enough bandwidth to make VoIP work. With the help of network specialists from Zultys, CBS campus technologists upgraded some key network switches. They overhauled their approach to service, inking deals with a number of new Internet Service Providers, to ensure redundancy. Finally, the group reconfigured the network to make sure the expanded effort functioned smoothly with maximum uptime.

Returns on the VoIP and related investments started pouring in immediately. First and foremost, by sending voice traffic alongside data packets over the Internet Protocol, the school was able to trim long-distance tolls from its telecommunications budget. Perhaps more importantly, the investment in VoIP enabled the college to mothball its old PBX system, and downsize its IT/Telecom staff accordingly. Boothe says that since the Zultys system was installed 18 months ago, the school has eliminated at least three full-time positions, letting go of those employees whose sole jobs were to manage the old phone system. Today, he says, VoIP is just another server on the school’s multifaceted network, freeing technologists to spend their time working on what they know best: the network itself.

Shortening Distances

VoIP d'esn’t only help academic institutions cut down on long-distance costs; it helps schools truncate the long distances between campuses, too. Such was the case at Florida Atlantic University,where officials turned to VoIP to help them manage telecommunications across six campuses that span a 120-mile stretch of the Sunshine State. In 2004, when the university set out to build a seventh campus, technologists at the school’s main campus in Boca Raton wondered aloud if installing yet another PBX was the best way to go. Why invest in traditional analog equipment when they could blend voice and data traffic with VoIP? Telecommunications vendor Siemens ( www.siemens.com) answered the call immediately.

Siemens was no stranger to FAU. Previously, the firm had installed the PBX boxes at all of the school’s locations. It wasn’t surprising, then, that instead of proposing to scuttle the entire PBX strategy, Siemens pitched a solution that revolved around IP-enabling the systems already in place. Specifically, the plan called for upgrading one of the switches at the school’s Boca Raton campus and launching Internet Protocol Distributed Architecture (IPDA) shells on each of the other campuses. Under this strategy, FAU could bundle voice and data packets together whenever necessary. The best part, of course, is that because the IPDA initiated in Boca Raton, school technology officials on that campus could control the entire network centrally.

“To discard the existing system and buy everything new would have been insane,” says Elise Angiolillo, director of Communications Services Infrastructure at FAU. “The solution they proposed simply made the most sense.”

Work on the $1 million conversion began toward the end of 2004; the last campus was switched to the VoIP system in April. Ostensibly (at least from the user perspective), nothing has changed; even though they can run VoIP telephones straight out of their Ethernet ports, most users still plug ordinary phones into analog phone jacks. Behind the scenes, however, everything is different—from the way voice traffic is transmitted, to the fact that long distance bills are a thing of the past. On the ledger sheet, the school covers its costs with a technology fee that it charges students every semester. And in the general fund, coffers are growing once again, now that all campus-to-campus calls are transmitted alongside standard Internet traffic.

Looking ahead, Angiolillo says she’s “cautiously optimistic” about other long-term benefits. Now that the conversion is complete, FAU is investing heavily in training courses to make sure that all of its IT staffers understand how to manage calls during periods of peak activity, and how to add or drop users as they enter or leave the environment. The school also recently launched a modest VoIP awareness campaign for users—particularly faculty and staff members—to combat fears about service disruption and to explain how to reach police in the event of emergencies. According to Angiolillo, FAU has added redundancies and e911 capabilities to ensure that both of these issues are under control. “Once users realize that VoIP is good,” she says, “the real fun begins.”

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