The University of VoIP

Updated: February 28, 2011

For many universities, the move to VoIP, is not one of trend-following or quick decisions to improve service. Especially as the economy grows weary, and institutions of higher education are forced to do "more with less," the issue of VoIP implementation usually is not discussed until there is a greater need to upgrade the network; perhaps a new building or new campus is erected, new funding is allocated, and long-desired upgrades to networks and phones are finally granted. In 2004, the University of San Francisco was looking to improve their network, and found that the new network's possibility for VoIP ‘paved the way for (their) phone, fax, internet, data, and video services to all run on a single network' (3). When the largest community college in the state of Oregon, Portland Community College, came upon an IP solution, they were simply looking to upgrade their existing phones. The school covers over one million college students in five counties. The University wanted to "improve its daily telephone communications with its constituents," but PCC's phone system couldn't provide the pertinent information to effect such a change, such as call volumes. A VoIP solution with Interactive Intelligence (rolled out in stages to be completed this year), had the added advantage of allowing the staff to work remotely, through desktop and web clients, while appearing to be at campus locations. There are, of course, costs to the necessary network upgrades and bandwidth. Also, though an VoIP solution may include an easy-to-use interface, implementation might require outside help or additional training for staffers. However, most market-leading vendors will provide courses to their customers. While costs can seem daunting, for both integration and for rip-and-replace solutions, the return on investment (ROI) with VoIP is often too remarkable to ignore. Adopting VoIP can "reduce monthly expenses by up to 76.2% based upon the type of telephone usage." (1). However, the most obvious benefits of long-distance cost saving and phone system upgrades are not all that an IP solution can offer to college campuses. Let's look into the other benefits, including ways that a VoIP solution can maximize on its ROI.

Converged networks of voice and data allow for video and instant messaging, etc. If a school has an attached Medical College, where the doctors are running between cell phones, pagers and office landlines, a feature like find me/follow me (technologies that allow incoming calls to be received at different locations, on different devices) would be helpful. In the article, "Convergence Makes the Grade," it was noted that USF uses their converged network for everything from registration to enrollment, as well as services for students, faculty and alumni. The ability to use soft phones with their campus computers also allows faculty to set up ad hoc workspaces. Bowdoin (in conjunction with Cingular) installed enough cell towers so that their students could tie mobiles to the VoIP network anywhere on campus (5). And, Dartmouth College gives free software to all students, allowing free local and long distance calling on the campus' over 7,000 Cisco VoIP phones and soft phones (4). Within the first three years of their deal with Cisco, Dartmouth cut their telecommunications costs in half because of the lower management and administration requirements (3). Like Dartmouth, Clayton State University in Morrow, GA, also found savings far beyond long-distance calling costs. IT Director, John Bryan of Clayton State University in Morrow, GA, points out how merging telecommunications with his IT department, in the implementation of IP telephony, saved the college: "We've been able to eliminate one whole type of technology, and that's a tremendous savings in terms of cost and support.." Bryan reports that the ROI for Clayton's VoIP is five years. After this year, the system will cost half of what it would have cost to continue operation of their former plain old telephone service (POTS) (2). Sharlene Norton, the Telecommunications Manager at Portland Community College found great savings in increased efficiency. "Our technology helpdesk has increased the handling of calls by over 33 percent without increasing staff"…"We can see missed calls on our desktop client or phone in the past, and a major portion of that technology is our VoIP system," Norton says (6). Some schools are even looking to profit from their converged networks by charging for phone calls, music and movie downloads. A notable non-monetary benefit that appeals to universities is the opportunity for Mass Notification, or Emergency Communications Systems, often as easy as using text-to-speech announcements. After, Virginia Tech's unspeakable tragedy in 2007, nearby Alderson-Broaddus College looked for a new solution for their emergency communication. They have installed one VoIP phone per student suite for use in emergencies and locally (8). While VoIP's benefits abound, there are problems that may crop up with the implementation of IP telephony and the first one can have a reverse effect on a school's safety.

VoIP requires an Internet connection. If the power goes out, so does the phone. Thus, the FCC requires VoIP suppliers to inform their customers of this drawback as part of their E911 compliance rules. This problem, however, can be solved in short-term power outages by simply having batteries, but contingency plans for backup generators would be needed for longer periods without power. Some colleges also keep a few analog lines or back-up emergency-use mobile phones. Other problems that college telecommunications staff might encounter are related to quality of service (QoS). Security, sound, and bandwidth are all worth considering. Good QoS requires both installment by knowledgeable technicians and reliable Internet service with consistent bandwidth.

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