Telecommunications: The Next Legacy?

As universities discover the benefits of wireless, telephone systems just might become yesterday’s news.

EXTINCTION IS A WELL-DOCUMENTED phenomenon occurring frequently on this planet; everything from the dinosaurs to the dodo bird have seen the end of the line. In the world of technology, extinction is both frequent and forced. Whether it’s the mainframe computer or floppy disks, many former staples of college computing are now relegated to museums and the personal collections of technology historians.

As both cellular telephones and VoIP (voice over the Internet protocol) become more affordable, traditional telephone systems just might be next to join the dusty shelves of history. And nowhere is the impending end of the traditional telephone line felt more acutely than in academia. For years, colleges and universities have offered Centrex-driven, hard-line telephone jacks in campus dormitories and have earned big bucks selling long-distance services to students who use them. Now, however, as more and more students are turning to cell phones for their communication needs, some schools are reconsidering their telephone policies altogether.

At Wake Forest University (NC), technologists recently launched a pilot program to determine how best to phase out traditional land lines and move students to a mandatory wireless plan. “I never thought I’d see the day when telephones became legacy systems, but for us, it might not be that far off,” says Jay Dominick, assistant VP for Information Systems. “Keeping telephone systems just d'esn’t make sense for us anymore, so in a sense, we’re simply adjusting to reality.”

Communication Breakdown

As Dominick implies, the writing certainly is on the wall. In September 2004, he and his colleagues received a number of loud complaints from faculty members about the inability to get in touch with their students. After a brief investigation, Dominick’s team discovered that faculty members were calling students on dorm phones, and leaving voicemail messages that were never retrieved. In January 2005, Dominick’s crew set out to crunch some numbers about voicemail usage, or the lack thereof, on the campus telephone network. The results were staggering. Of 1,985 mailboxes: 14.9 percent hadn’t been accessed in 30 to 50 days. 10.8 percent hadn’t been accessed in 51 to 100 days. 7.5 percent hadn’t been accessed in 101 to 200 days. 24.9 percent had never been accessed at all. Remarkably, more than 58 percent of campus voicemail hadn’t been accessed at all in the 30 days prior to the study. With campus voicemail as the university’s primary method of communicating emergency information, Dominick knew he had to respond to this alarming trend quickly.

However, instead of fighting the student movement away from telephones, he embraced it. Recognizing that students were eschewing their dorm phones for cellular ones, Dominick lined up three cellphone companies, Cingular (www.cingular.com), Verizon ( www.verizon.com), and Sprint (www.sprint.com), to participate in a pilot program that will begin this month (September ’05). When school begins, each vendor will place a cellular phone unit in the hands of 50 students. At the end of the trial in December, students will report back about which phones they liked best, and Dominick will iron out a deal with that lucky vendor to roll out a campuswide wireless program in the Fall ’06 semester. According to Dominick, the wireless program will become mandatory. Just as Wake Forest requires students to have laptop computers, so, too, will the school require students to carry university-affiliated cell phones. “If we ask them to have the same cell phone service, we’ll be able to get them all back on the same system again,” says Dominick. “In terms of communicating with our students, this will make things a whole lot easier.”

Can You Hear Me Now?

Still, the plan isn’t without its challenges. First, for students who already own cell phones—which is most of them—the program could mean they’d have to obtain a second phone and carry it, an annoyance that might not go over very well. Second, of course, is the issue of 911. Currently, 911 calls from most cellular networks are routed to the nearest municipal police station. Wake Forest, however, will need to work with the “winning” cellular service provider to make sure that 911 calls from the university’s Winston-Salem, NC campus are routed to the university police instead.

In the move away from traditional telephones, perhaps the most important issue is cost. Though operating campus phone jacks costs nothing (Wake Forest won’t lose dollars in the switch), cost may become a factor in the new plan. In ironing out a deal with one of the wireless carriers, Dominick says the school must calculate basic service plan options, a billing strategy, and a price for the new mandatory devices. Ideally, he envisions a system that incorporates an annual wireless phone charge into the fee for room and board, and a monthly service bill that g'es directly to students. “We’ll do whatever we can to continue to provide our people with phone service,” says Dominick. “Communication with our students is so important, it’s not worth giving up without a fight.”

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