VoIP saves colleges no money, but it's coming anyway

Conference recognizes that VoIP is the future, but has reservations

BALTIMORE -- Saving money is no longer the object in VoIP deployments among colleges and universities -- it is the search for converged communications and acceptance of the inevitable, panelists agreed at the VoIP summit this week held by ACUTA, the Association for Communications Professionals in Higher Education.

Five years ago vendors claimed VoIP installations would save money by reducing staff and eliminating the need for a dedicated voice network. “We’ve gotten past the idea that IP is going to save us a lot of money,” says Walt Magnussen, telecom director at Texas A&M University.

But schools are still moving in the direction of VoIP because PBX vendors are phasing out traditional TDM PBXs by not upgrading their features and pushing VoIP servers and gateways to link VoIP gear to traditional gear.

So Texas A&M is buying a VoIP Centrex service this summer that acknowledges that VoIP is inevitable, and now is the time to start moving in that direction, he says.

Still, the goal of savings persists among university board members whose knowledge of VoIP includes the view that it can save money. It takes some effort to convince them that it does not, Magnussen says.

“I don’t think we’re going to spend a whole lot more money or save a whole lot of money with VoIP,” he says. VoIP gear costs less but has a shorter life expectancy than traditional TDM. And it requires training and a higher level of technical ability to troubleshoot, he says.

Magnussen says it would be impossible to afford a quick swap-out of TDM. The cost would be $18 million, which is more than his department’s annual budget. “The universities with the highest percentage of VoIP installed are the smaller institutions where a lump-sum trade-out is financially feasible,” he says.

A slow transition makes it easier on faculty and staff who need to come to grips with the realities of VoIP, such as softphones, says Pat Todus, Northwestern University’s head of information technology. “The faculty can’t do that. They need a phone on their desk.” A phased approach allows them to learn a new system gradually, she says.

That is why Northwestern University chose VoIP vendor Nortel, Todus says. The vendor had gear with interfaces to the school’s old TDM switches so it can run both VoIP and TDM until the transition to VoIP can be completed.

Todus also says she likes the geographical diversity VoIP offers. If the VoIP fails in Chicago because of a disaster, the gear in Evanston can jump in to continue voice service, she says.

Tammy Closs, IT director for Duke University and Medical Center, says her goal for VoIP is to reduce the number of different systems she and her staff have to maintain, so they can operate more efficiently. Moving to VoIP means the schools can reduce the amount of TDM voice and so reduce the need for specialized personnel. “It’s difficult to keep the staff trained,” she says. “We will probably never get down to one platform, but reducing them makes it simpler to manage.”

In addition, users don’t perceive any benefit from VoIP. “I have an installed legacy base, and I don’t hear anyone screaming to me that they have a killer app that only VoIP can supply,” she says. But VoIP may be the killer app for the IT department by making management of voice and data less complex. “It helps manage the infrastructure and services,” she says.

Colleges face competition for phone service in dorms from both cell phones and from students using their broadband internet connections to support commercial VoIP services such as Vonage and Skype, Closs says.

Faculty seems headed the same way as their departments try to find a cheaper way to put phones in professors' offices.

Northwestern is fighting that trend by offering departments packages of VoIP and unified messaging that includes e-mail and instant messaging for $39 per month per person, Todus says.

Schools that haven’t started on VoIP transitions yet should work on merging their telecom and data networking staff, getting them familiar with each other’s technologies, Magnussen says. That will make for less infighting and supply the needed in-house expertise VoIP demands. “Those of you that don’t have converged staff know the challenges,” he says.

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