Telecommunications

Fixed-Mobile Convergence: Dartmouth Beefs Up Cell Coverage, Cuts Costs

Problems with cell phone coverage aren't uncommon on college campuses. There are two main reasons: The beefy structure of historic buildings can block cellular reception within walls, and, on more remote campuses outside cities, signal coverage can be light.

To address that issue on its relatively remote campus near Hanover, NH, Dartmouth College is testing a new convergence solution in its IT group that switches a cell phone from the cellular network to Dartmouth's wireless network, and back again, depending on user location and signal strength.

In the process, Dartmouth's computing services department is saving significant amounts of money by slashing the number of cell phone minutes staff consume, according to Director of Technical Service David Bucciero. He has distributed 21 phones so far, and plans to eventually deploy 100. At that point, Bucciero will decide whether to recommend that Dartmouth deploy the technology across campus. "We have to get through this pilot, up to about a hundred phones, then assess where we are. Then we'll understand better the next steps," he said.

Under the new technology, the move from cell coverage to the wireless network is transparent to the user, who might trigger the switch while entering a building, for example, while on a cell phone call. Software loaded onto the cell phone detects the weakened cell signal and a strong wireless signal, and switches the caller to Dartmouth's wireless network. From there, the call is routed to the college's enterprise voice-over-IP system. The technology is carrier-agnostic--it works regardless of the user's cellular service provider.

Cell phone users who previously had no coverage within certain areas in many of Dartmouth's buildings, now have excellent coverage because they are being switched to the wireless data network. That's a big improvement in coverage on a campus on which, Bucciero estimated, "probably upwards of 40 percent of the campus doesn't have good cell coverage," often because a user is in a basement or another difficult-to-cover building location.

Dartmouth, a higher education leader in wireless networks, has long had an extensive and mature campus-wide network from Aruba Networks consisting of 802.11a, b and g standards. It is also testing the pending 802.11n standard. The college has long been known for leading the way in communications technology: It rolled out a campus-wide wireless network in 2001 and introduced voice over IP in dorms in 2003.  Under that system, faculty, staff, and students have the option of downloading software to their computers or using VoIP companion phones to make local or long-distance phone calls over the Internet.

In the industry, the integration of wired, wireless, and cellular is known as fixed-mobile convergence and is a hot topic currently as technologies, including wireless speeds and coverage, have surged forward. For its fixed-mobile convergence solution, Dartmouth turned to a solution offered by Agito Networks. Agito is a relatively new technology vendor founded in 2006 by wireless veterans from Cisco.

The Agito RoamAnywhere Mobility Router, which Dartmouth is using, is a fixed-mobile convergence platform that fuses enterprise wireless LANs, cellular networks, IP telephony, and location technology.

To keep a call connected, Agito employs a location-based handover system that relies on radio frequency technology to determine location. Based on where a user is, the technology instantly and automatically switches the caller to the best available network. The Agito client on a user's phone works with the Cisco call manager that handles Dartmouth's voice over IP network. Wireless calls go through the Agito interface to the call manager and out. "We liked how Agito uses the location-based solution," according to Bucciero. "We thought that was a nice angle on making the decision on whether it's wireless or cell."

Agito works with all of the elements of Dartmouth's current telecom mix: Cisco for voice over IP management, AT&T as its mobile phone carrier, and several series of Nokia smart phones for faculty and staff.

Besides providing coverage to users who previously might have had a call dropped, the Dartmouth solution has a huge fiscal benefit. The college's cellular charges have dropped dramatically as IT staff calls are switched to the wireless network, reducing the user of cell phone minutes. Bucciero said he hopes ultimately to cut his cellular costs in half by using Agito.

With current mobile phone contracts, Bucciero said he was spending more than $100 per user monthly on a plan that includes voice, data, and messaging. With users switched to the wireless network whenever possible, user minutes are greatly reduced, enabling Bucciero to consider savings options such as moving to a pooled cell phone use plan.

Dartmouth is currently using a single Agito router; each Agito RoamAnywhere device can support up to 1,000 callers at once. The system works with several PBX systems, including those from Cisco, Avaya and Nortel. On the client side, the interface is largely transparent to users. Agito supports the Nokia E and N series and Windows Mobile phones. The company said that support for iPhones and Blackberry devices is pending.
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