Campus Technology FocusCampus Technology Focus

April 2, 2009

TAKING THE PLUNGE: One School’s Experience with Unified Communications

Unifying communications in the higher education IT environment isn’t easy, but it sure can be worthwhile. According to the “2009 Unified Communications Tracking Poll” from CDW-G (, technologists at colleges and universities are finding that unified communications (UC) increases productivity and reduces operating costs across the board.

It’s also easier to manage than a bunch of disparate systems.

So says Chet Strebe, CIO for Information Systems and Instructional Technology with Northcentral Technical College (NTC) in Wausau, Wis. Since the early part of this decade, Strebe has engineered a UC deployment that is actually still growing.

The result: a lean, mean communications strategy that links voice, data and other types of communication on the same network.

“I can’t imagine how much more difficult it would be for us to handle communications if we were doing it with separate systems,” Strebe says. “Unifying everything takes time and effort, but it’s undoubtedly worth it in the end.”

The Northcentral Technical College project began back in 2003, when the school implemented IP phones from Cisco at six regional campuses and connected them over the school’s data network. Over the years, the college has added video over IP and a fax solution that enabled users to receive faxes in their email inbox.

The school’s latest additions are mass notification and IPCC Express, a functionality that revolutionizes call-center integration and helps route calls for certain departments when they come in.

NTC also rolled out ITV-powered synchronous distance education classes between the main campus in Wausau and six regional campuses in Spencer, Wittenberg, Antigo, Medford, Merrill and Phillips. This new system creates greater opportunity for education as students are no longer constrained by the distance between the main and satellite campuses. The distance education classes run from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. almost every day.

“Talk about affording students all these new opportunities,” says Strebe. “This technology has allowed us to do things we’ve never dreamed.”

Still, the switch to UC at NTC wasn’t without its challenges and hiccups.

First were the pitfalls of implementation—because Strebe and his colleagues set up the school’s UC system alongside its legacy PBX, compatibility issues ran rampant for the first few months. Of particular concern was the difficulty users experienced forwarding voicemails from one system to another.

“People were frustrated,” he remembers. “They knew the new system was better, but it was forcing them to learn new tricks, which took time.”

Another issue: the campus dialing plan. As NTC switched over from the old PBX to the new UC system, Strebe wanted to make the transition as easy as possible for users, so the school petitioned the Federal Communications Commission for its own local exchange.

Under the new system, four-digit extensions are the same whether you dial them from on-campus or off (though naturally, from off-campus, users must dial the 803 exchange). The price tag? A modest monthly fee and a few hours spent reconfiguring the UC system behind the scenes.

“With a new technology like this, little things like having your external numbers match your internal numbers can make a huge difference,” Strebe says. “The less users have to adapt to a new technology, the more they’re going to enjoy it and incorporate it into their daily lives.”

Strebe and his colleagues also had to prime the network backbone. First, this meant standardizing on Cisco switches and routers, many of which are equipped with power over Ethernet. Secondly, the process included a large-scale bandwidth overhaul. Before UC and video over IP, most activities on the school network didn’t require more than 1 megabyte of bandwidth. Now, however, regular use can require up to 7 or 8 megabytes at a time.

To meet this demand, Strebe hired a local solution provider to perform a bandwidth assessment. Then he adjusted bandwidth levels accordingly.

Moving forward, as the school’s UC implementation continues to grow, Strebe and his colleagues will be forced to look into other ways of handling bandwidth. Even today, NTC employees research bandwidth options, particularly in the area of wireless networking.

Strebe says a number of different wireless providers are coming into the area offering services such as WiMax, the latest and greatest transmission technology.

“That kind of connectivity can only be a boon to the network,” he says, noting that NTC eventually hopes to transmit most UC traffic without wires. “Anything to make our Unified Communications more sophisticated.”

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