Many colleges see drawbacks to VoIP

Some schools find compelling benefits, but overall VoIP is a hard sell

BALTIMORE - Even the lure of phone systems that withstand disasters combined with the benefits of unified messaging don’t outweigh the costs to bring IP communications to college campuses, according to a survey by ACUTA, the Association for Communications Professionals in Higher E ducation.

BALTIMORE - Even the lure of phone systems that withstand disasters combined with the benefits of unified messaging don’t outweigh the costs to bring IP communications to college campuses, according to a survey by ACUTA, the Association for Communications Professionals in Higher Education.

While as many as 48% of respondents say they find a range of very attractive features with VoIP, 42% see no compelling benefits to retiring traditional phone systems in favor of IP [see graphic], according to the survey of 279 ACUTA members released last week at the group’s Summit on IP Communications in Higher Education.

Some schools veer away from the technology because their old systems still work. “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,” says Tammy Closs, assistant vice president of communications and systems infrastructure at Duke University.

Colleges not eager to study VoIP

Other schools find the cost of installing VoIP to be daunting. For example, the University of California at Irvine calculated it would cost $8.5 million to replace its current 1985 Ericsson PBX and Digital Sound voice mail system. $3.3 million of that would be for power over Ethernet upgrades and uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) to keep phones up when electric service fails, says Brian Buckler, director of network and telecom operations at the school. IP phones alone would cost $3.1 million, he says.

Still, the school is moving ahead with VoIP, deploying it in new buildings where the costs of network infrastructure and UPSs are covered by the construction costs. The network upgrades needed to support VoIP reliably have been made because of increased demand for a reliable data network, Buckler says, and he urges other schools to do the same.

“Making data networks rock-solid is a feather in your cap,” he says. “Then paying $50,000 for call control for a VoIP implementation is chump change. You can buy old phones from the green market.”

Bring on resiliency

Because VoIP systems are distributed, they are more resilient when equipment and links do fail, says Scott Kincaid, CIO of Butler University in Indianapolis, where an end-of-life PBX led to a new VoIP system that adds important new features the old system lacked.

“We had no campus [public address] system,” Kincaid says. “Post-9/11, the administration was nervous. What if we need to do an emergency broadcast?” With the VoIP network, emergency messages can be sent as text messages or voice announcements, he says.

Schools are also worried about installing VoIP because it is difficult keep current a list of where each IP phone is located, information necessary for E-911 services. The phones can be moved to any network switch port, and they will log themselves on, but there are no automated ways to register current locations.

As a result some schools don’t allow VoIP in residences. At Texas A&M University, for example, school counsel forbids VoIP in graduate family housing. Calls to 911 might not generate accurate information about where the call is coming from. “The lawyers say we will not do VoIP in residences with families with small kids on campus,” says Walt Magnussen, director for telecommunications at the school.

One-third of respondents say network security concerns stand in the way. “It’s a real problem, but one that can be overcome,” says Melissa Muth, director of network engineering and services at the University of Pennsylvania. Diligent patching of operating systems, firewalls, antivirus software and other standard network protections go a long way toward protecting VoIP as well, she says.

Others still worry about the security of IP phones themselves. “You’ve got all these mini-computers with a handset running on them that you can send a virus to,” says Melanie Scott, telecommunications administrator at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York.

Beyond network security, converging voice and data networks means it is more difficult to maintain physical security over the voice network. With traditional phone systems, the PBX often has a closet of its own, and the only gear outside the closet is the phone itself. With VoIP, every wiring closet contains phone gear.

“I cringe at how many people will go in and our of your [telecom] closets,” says Jeanne Jansenius, director of telecom and technology infrastructure services at Sweanee: The University of the South in Tennessee.

Once schools get past the obstacles, they see opportunities to solve tricky communications via VoIP. For example, Bowdoin College in Maine, is looking to extend college private-network phone features to student cell phones, says Mitch Davis, the school’s CIO.

The school has made a deal with Cingular to install cell towers so everyone can get four-bars reception anywhere on campus, and have wireless handsets that can tie into the cellular or the campus VoIP network, he says. Students will be able to make four-digit calls on campus because their cell phones will become nodes of the VoIP PBX, he says.

He imagines integration with back-end administration applications. “When a student signs up for classes the registrar’s office can populate their schedules to their cell phones,” he says.

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