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Pulling the Plug on Landlines at Iowa State

Take a walk through Iowa State University's residence halls right now and you'll be hard pressed to find a landline telephone. Next year, the phones will be even more elusive. That's because the Ames, Iowa-based university is in the process of pulling all such phones out of the dorms in favor of the cell phones that students have been carrying around with them for several years now.

Pete Englin, director of the school's residence department, said the idea came about at a Big 12 housing directors' conference back in 2006. "We talked about eliminating landlines and reallocating the expenses associated with them," Englin explained. "We started exploring the idea with our students, and realized that over half of them weren't using landlines at all."

In fact, a campus survey revealed that 90 percent of resident students had cell phones and were using them in lieu of traditional telephones. Digging deeper into the situation, Englin and his team learned that the school could save $140,000 annually by reallocating the landline resources, and by providing 802.11 wireless service for students.

"Over the course of a few years, the decision basically made itself," said Englin of the choice to pull the landlines. Early on, however, he said students were reluctant to let go of the landline phones, despite the fact that they were rarely used. Englin said some of the early dissent may have stemmed from the fact that the college had yet to identify an alternative to the traditional phone lines.

"We knew it was an underutilization," said Englin, "but we didn't have an alternative service in mind." Seeking more information, ISU generated an in-depth report on landline usage for the fall 2006 semester. "The printout clearly showed a pattern of declining landline use among students," said Englin, adding that at the time cell phone plans were still cost-prohibitive for some students and that smart phones and PDAs had yet to become commonplace.

"When we first started investigating the scenario, a good percentage of students still relied on their traditional phones," he said. "Eighteen months later, most of them had transitioned to cell phones."

That transition opened the door for ISU to start ditching the landlines in its residence halls, which house about 6,000 students. To ensure that students were comfortable with the switch, Englin said the school worked together with student leadership to enforce the idea of using cell phones and PDAs instead of landlines.

"The student leaders went back to their students groups and discussed the issue with them," said Englin. "Then we asked for a referendum from them, recommending that we eliminate the landlines."

Once that referendum was filed, Englin and his team started talking to the school's IT staff about the transition. "We knew the move would have huge implications for the IT folks," said Elgin, who added that the college was shelling out about $700,000 annually for phone service and was concerned about 911 and reverse 911 service availability.

To ensure that 911 service would be available, the school decided to leave certain landlines in each student staff room and also provide voice mail for 24/7 staff contact and emergencies. "We also installed one landline per floor, adjacent to the community advisor's room, where students would know to go if they needed help," explained Englin.

Students who want to keep their landlines can do so by subscribing individually and by providing their own phones and paying an activation fee of $35 and a $15-per-month line charge. Once wireless service is activated in a specific building, ISU cancels its landline service. That's been done in seven out of 14 buildings so far, with the remaining dorms set for disconnection by next year.

So far the move to wireless has been well received by students, most of whom are unaffected by the disconnection. "We've heard zero feedback so far from the dorms where the landlines have been pulled," said Englin. "No one really seems to notice, or care."

Englin said the estimated $140,000 in annual savings that the college will begin reaping next year will be funneled into other technology-based residence hall projects, including a $4 million transition to 802.11 wireless.

To other universities looking to remove landlines from their budgets, Englin said the key to success is to involve students throughout the entire process, rather than surprising them at the last minute. Also consider the implications that such a move will have on campus partners, added Englin, such as the landline telephone service providers.

"We were fortunate in that our students opted for the ubiquitous wireless environment," said Englin, "which allowed the same service provider to benefit from cost recovery by building up its systems, infrastructure and staffing levels to support our needs."

Finally, Englin said, universities must take public safety into consideration before making any big moves. That means ensuring that the school's staff, students and visitors will have access to 911 systems--and that law enforcement can use the reverse 911 service--in case of emergency. "Have the mechanisms in place that allow individuals to react quickly and appropriately," said Englin, "should there be an urgent need at the facility."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].

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