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A Quick Switch to VoIP at Brandeis University

Price Drives the Project

Cost was a major driver from the start. The expense of replacing corroding copper wire between buildings, Hanson estimates, was half a million dollars. Replacing the failing switch would be another half million dollars, so "right from the start, we had a million-dollar problem, [and] probably more once we opened it up." In December 2002, the school decided to re-bid the project as VoIP. After a year of reviewing bids, they made a decision to go with Cisco equipment in March 2003.

Most of the project's cost was upgrading components of the school's network to support a new application-the voice system and its software. Hanson stresses that it's important to look at a VoIP system as just that-a new application on the network, albeit an extremely important one. Brandeis, which already had a robust network, needed only to add the new servers necessary to support the voice system, along with a call manager.

A third of a million dollars was spent to add a UPS to each router station, something "we probably should have had already," Hanson admits. Realizing that people are accustomed to phones continuing to work when power is out, the school nonetheless decided they could live with just 30 minutes of backup time per UPS, reasoning that "99.99 percent of the time, a power outage is a blip," and further, most students also have cell phones for backup use during a power outage.

In summary, Hanson estimates the project costs at just over $4 million, as follows: Approximately $2.25 million on network equipment, $1.25 million on phone equipment, $300,000 for the UPS devices, and another $300,000 or so for an implementation partner, a national telecommunications company that handled the details of the implementation. (Brandeis has continued with the same telecom provider as before the switch.)

Quality of service

On the question of security, Hanson feels comfortable with the phone system sharing the network. "First of all, we're just fanatical about making sure our systems are patched properly," he says. In fact, the phone system hasn't been down since the switch to VoIP.

Implementing a 911 system can be challenge with VoIP because the phones are portable. Hanson says Brandeis has solved that by implementing an "e911" system that identifies both the phone being called from, and the port-thus enabling campus police to pinpoint location.

An Excellent ROI

Part of Hanson's reasoning in moving to the new technology had to do with the return on investment. Although the initial cost was high-the total project cost was $4 million -- Hanson reasoned that "we'd get a brand new network with 100 megabytes instead of 10 to every port on campus."

Probably the biggest savings, Hanson says, were in not replacing the PBX switch or the copper wiring. But there are other benefits as well. Having voice functions as part of the data network makes it easier to maintain in many ways, since it's treated as another application on the network-a responsibility of the network administrators.

There's also been a shift in skills, with the school needing fewer staff with pure telephone expertise after the rollout.

Hanson says there are also big savings in the elimination of what used to be known as "moves and changes" in the old PBX lingo-the need to send a phone technician each time someone needed to move a phone, make a change, or set up a new one. With the VoIP phones, people simply carry their phones to a new jack-a common practice now in dorms, where students often carry a phone down to the lobby to continue conversations while waiting for a pizza delivery, for example.

Some analog phones remain-chiefly for fax machines and in campus hallways, where the school wasn't able to secure VoIP phones to the wall adequately. And in both of those cases, the voice or data itself is transmitted over the data network-only the devices themselves are analog. "I said, I want every phone that can be a VoIP phone to be one," Hanson says.

And the Favorite VoIP Feature is…

With the VoIP network offering a myriad of features, from easy conference calls to caller ID to inexpensive rates on long distance, Hanson says that the favorite feature among students is… a wake-up call function. Using a program written by a Brandeis student and incorporated into the system, students can use a Web interface to select wake-up calls ranging from songs to impersonations-or an exhortation from the university president. "We're just scratching the service," Hanson concludes. "We don't know where it's going to go."

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