Voice over IP Moves into the Spotlight

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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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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