Voice over IP Moves into the Spotlight

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.

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About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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