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Voice over IP Moves into the Spotlight

VoIP technology has matured to become a viable alternative to a traditional PBX system. When is it right for your campus?

Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, has been around for quite a while as a technology. Most IT managers, however, have been waiting for it to mature sufficiently and become reliable enough to trust. They've also been waiting for prices to drop, so that they can make the case for an enticing return on investment. That's suddenly happening now, as VoIP pushes its way into the technology spotlight. University CIOs and IT managers are now rolling out voice telephony systems in more than limited, test projects.

VoIP--or IP telephony, to be more correct--can appear to users in a number of ways. Devices ranges from phones that look nearly identical to traditional models but connect directly to a broadband port, to computer software that requires no telephone at all, just a microphone connected to the computer. In general, the term refers to methods for transporting voice over the data network.

And the promise of transmitting voice over the IP network is considerable. With VoIP running as an application on the network, any place on campus with a broadband connection and the right software-whether a dorm room, office or classroom, and wired or wireless-can connect and send voice communications. As the technology matures, quality is becoming indistinguishable from traditional phone lines.

Cost Drives the Decision

When conditions are right, VoIP can save money, but the equation depends on several factors. VoIP is usually most attractive when a college or university is either facing a replacement of failing PBX equipment, or when an addition is being made to the voice network, as when a new building is added.

The University of Oregon, with 21,000 students and 4,000 faculty and staff, has most of its phones on a traditional PBX system. But according to Dave Barta, director of telecommunications services, the school now has three separate VoIP installations on campus. Each rollout was driven by cost considerations.

"We see VoIP as a solution in specific cases," agrees J'el Hartman, vice provost for information technologies and resources (CIO) at the University of Central Florida (see Hartman's fast-growing school has more than 43,000 students and 5,000 faculty and staff. It adds an average of two new buildings a year and by 2010 expects to have nearly 60,000 students.

VoIP can be attractive, Hartman says, but "it's a matter of putting it into places where it makes sense." For example, the university went with VoIP for its brand-new College of Hospitality Management building because the structure was isolated, stand-alone, and needed a complete communication solution. But the campus is largely served by a traditional Siemens analog PBX system, and in other recent new installations, the school has opted to stick with PBX.

For the hospitality management building, Hartman considered multiple ideas. In the end, he chose to make the building the school's first VoIP facility-a fully converged network that has the capability to carry voice, video, and data. In that case, Hartman says, "We arrived at VoIP as superior on service, lower on cost, and [able to] give us a converged network."

"The dollars work depending on where you are in the lifecycle of your traditional telephony plan," concurs Larry Levine, director of computing at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Dartmouth was one of the first schools to roll out a wireless network across campus several years ago ( It began its move to VoIP when it was faced with replacing an old PBX switch at a potential cost of several million dollars.

The school is now well into its second year of gradually rolling out VoIP, and is close to using it campus-wide. The VoIP project includes replacing traditional "hard" phones on faculty and staff desks with IP phones with the same general look and feel. School policy dictates that students bring their own phones, so once prices for VoIP phones drop enough to make the reasonable for students, Dartmouth will switch its students to the new system.

Currently, the school offers free software for a "soft phone" VoIP solution-software that acts as a telephone, running a VoIP application either over the school's broadband network, or its wireless network. A student with a computer running the soft phone needs only a microphone connected to the computer to use the soft phone.

Weigh the Possible Savings

Although manufacturers are moving briskly in the VoIP direction and hoping to sweep customers along with them, the University of Oregon's Barta says to evaluate carefully before assuming VoIP is the right direction. "If you already have a PBX, it's highly unlikely that's there's any money to be saved by going [completely] to VoIP," he suggests. For one thing, simply saving on your school's long distance bill isn't usually adequate justification for VoIP. "There are no huge savings in long distance any more," Barta points out.

Instead, consider your current data network. Is it stable, robust and adequately supported by staff with the appropriate skills? If you'll need to beef up the network in order to support voice traffic, including adequate power supply backup and new servers for the voice application, you may not save with VoIP. "You don't want to go to voice over IP," Barta says, "if you don't have a network that can support it."

Barta also advises that administrators considering VoIP understand that "this is adding a tremendous amount of complexity at the administrator level." Among other things, VoIP makes it difficult to outsource telecom maintenance-something that's relatively simple with a centralized PBX box. Having network administrators who understand the TCP/IP network becomes even more important.

Benefits of VoIP Add Up

"When you do convert [to VoIP]," Dartmouth's Levine says, "you save money in labor, and you save money in wiring-you no longer have to maintain the copper wiring system." At Dartmouth, with 7,000 or so phone numbers, Levine estimates that telecom maintenance costs will drop to two-thirds the current level in two to three years as a result of the move to VoIP.

But your decision shouldn't be driven by short-term dollar outlay alone. As Levine says, be sure to consider your users' actual telephone needs. In the long run, with VoIP, "you can give them so much more than with traditional telephony. I would present it to my customers in terms of features." For example, another popular feature of digital phones at Dartmouth is portability-a VoIP phone can be used many places, not just at its assigned jack. And a software phone can be used on any device that the software runs on-notebook computers, wireless PDAs, and more. At Dartmouth, with its campus-wide wireless network, that function is proving popular.

And of course, adding voice to your data network moves your campus closer to convergence-using a single network for voice and data. That, in turn, opens the network to even more advanced uses, such as combining audio and video transmission with voice, using voice and data together, and much more.

The Challenges

Adding any new application to the network introduces challenges, and voice is no different. The distributed nature of a data network on campus, with hundreds or even thousands of "communications closets" throughout the campus, differs from a centralized PBX network, where the phone system largely resides in one place. With a distributed network, each computer "closet" presents security and power backup considerations, among other things. That's even more important when you add voice to the network.

For example, whatever power backup system your network uses must cover the VoIP system as well. At the University of Central Florida, Hartman says that almost all buildings have generators, which act to back up the UPSes used for short-term power outages.

Network security is also more of a concern when voice joins the data network. In an interview in January with Syllabus, Hartman emphasized the security issue: "Part of my own personal concern about VoIP as a total solution is the question of it riding the same infrastructure that we are all the time defending against threats such as denial of service attacks and so on."

That's certainly still true, he says now, adding that "The whole issue of protecting networks today is a real concern." Another VoIP challenge is handling emergency 911 calls. That system, which traces the location of a 911 call, is established and mandated by law on the public switched telephone network. But one convenience of VoIP is that a phone itself can be moved from location to location while retaining the same number. Thus, you'll need an e911 solution (and various ones are now available) so that the system knows where any call is being placed.

A Technology That's Arrived

Eventually, VoIP will replace traditional phone systems. At Dartmouth, for example, the gradual incursion of VoIP is "part of a strategy that we're well down the road on in replacing traditional phones," Levine says. He predicts that in three to four years, when the price of VoIP phones drops sufficiently, Dartmouth will have completely phased out its PBX system.

Most university CIOs and telecommunications directors agree that VoIP has finally arrived and is poised to make a big splash. The questions now, Hartman says, revolve around timing, selection of brands and standards, staff support issues, and integration into the current network. At UCF, change will probably come "in an evolutionary way rather than as a wholesale move" within the next three to five years. "We'll probably consider VoIP in selective cases, particularly new construction, [and] particularly far from campus rather than near."

Barta also sees a slow evolution in telephony, as prices for VoIP equipment drops, the Federal Communications Commission grapples with how to regulate VoIP, multiple solutions are found to the e911 problem, and new uses for VoIP emerge.

In a 1999 paper on the then-emerging state of voice over IP, Barta wrote that he saw technology "at the beginning of a dramatic and fundamental changes in telephony…" He says that statement is still true today, four-plus years later. "If anything, the change that we see coming is even more dramatic than I would have thought then."

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