VoIP, Like It or Not

Sixty-six percent of colleges and universities surveyed in March by the Association for Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education (ACUTA) are currently using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology — voice communications over the Internet instead of conventional telephone lines.

That’s up from the 43 percent that were using VoIP technology when ACUTA surveyed members two years ago in 2006.

Then again, of those using VoIP this year, only 18 percent have connected more than 25 percent of their campus networks to a VoIP system. Most institutions are testing the technology with pilot programs. Still, that’s more than 2006, when virtually all users said their VoIP network covered less than 25 percent of their facilities.

“We’re experimenting with VoIP,” said Mark Katsouros, director of telecommunication and network services at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. “We have to get our foot in the door and keep up with it because it is inevitable.”

Jim Shea, director of telecommunications at Boston University in Boston, agreed: “It is coming, and we have to get ready for it. We’ve begun to experiment with small lab pilots.”

Everyone Wants VoIP
In this year’s ACUTA survey, those using VoIP listed the advantages as follows: overall efficiency (33 percent), more end user features (19 percent), and ongoing cost savings (14 percent).

Katsouros says that VoIP offers substantial cost savings in new facilities, which need only install a data network instead of the data network and telephone network. In addition, end-user applications made possible by VoIP create overall efficiencies. Sought-after applications include presence, preference, and unified messaging.

A presence application enables people in the office to find colleagues who are on the move. Because the intelligent Internet is virtually everywhere, a presence application can find you if you are logged on with a VoIP phone, computer, mobile phone, or whatever net-based communications tool you might be using.

A preference application can be set to indicate how you would prefer to be contacted. For example, someone studying in the library might prefer the silence of instant messaging.

Unified messaging applications push different kinds of messages into a single application. For instance, a voicemail created on a VoIP system could be saved in the conventional way and accessed by dialing a phone number and code. But wouldn’t it be easier if the system created an audio file and sent it to your e-mail address? When the message appears on your e-mail screen, you can retrieve it by clicking the voicemail icon. No more dialing for messages. A unified messaging system can also send faxes to e-mail applications.

“Anyone that is designing tools for telephony today is probably designing VoIP applications,” Katsouros said. “Organizations that don’t make the switch to VoIP will eventually fall behind in these new feature sets.”

Other desired applications include desktop video and videoconferencing, audio-conferencing, interactive voice response, directory services, and voice over wireless.
While colleges and universities may want to tap into the increased productivity of emerging VoIP applications, the technology is expensive to install and challenging to configure and use.

The Downside of VoIP
ACUTA members responding to this year’s survey listed a number of VoIP challenges.

Staffing issues ranked first, with 51 percent of the respondents complaining that it was difficult to find qualified VoIP technicians. Thirty-eight percent said they had encountered quality of service issues. Another 38 percent said VoIP was more complex than they anticipated. Other complaints highlighted management, security, reliability, emergency 911, and cost overrun issues.

Boston University’s Shea agreed with survey respondents struggling with problems connected to complex technology and expert staffing. “These systems are very complex,” he said. “A small office is easy to set up with VoIP. But as systems scale up, they get more complex — and more expensive.”

A large institution, continued Shea, would have to retrofit its entire data network to accommodate new power requirements, add new bandwidth, and ensure that the voice calls receive higher quality service than data.

“When sending a data request, you don’t need the network to respond instantly,” Shea said. “So transmission delays are common. But in a telephone conversation, you expect a clear channel. Some companies address the problem by putting in a second network to handle VoIP. But that is very expensive.”

VoIP also has a key vulnerability, continued Shea. In a traditional telephone network, the telephone company provides power for the phones from the central office. If the power goes off, the phones still work. But that’s not true for the network. When the power goes off, so does the network, and so do VoIP phones.

In spite of these and other problems, VoIP continues to grow on campus. Of the 34 percent of ACUTA members that reported not yet using VoIP, only nine percent have no plans to migrate to VoIP. Thirty-six percent have made plans to begin shifting to VoIP within six to 18 months. Fifty-five percent say they will make the change in the long term.

Going VoIP
Initial VoIP implementations typically occur at the fringe of the campus or in new remote sites, said Katsouros. “It costs a lot to extend a copper telephone network,” he explained. “VoIP is the less expensive option in those cases.”

While the ACUTA survey indicates that most institutions do start small and expand gradually, some do it all at once. In 2003, Dartmouth College undertook a two-year effort to upgrade the school’s entire network infrastructure and to convert 7,000 conventional telephone extensions in 120 buildings to VoIP. School officials had to choose between upgrading an aging private branch exchange or turning and VoIP.

A newly upgraded campus network made the project practical.

The initial cost analysis came down in favor of VoIP. Upgrading the PBX system would have costs $2.7M, compared to $1.9M to install a VoIP system that could support 20,000 extensions.

An operating cost analysis favored VoIP as well. Converged voice, video, and data operations, including staffing, cost $500,000 per year less than telecom, network services, and CATV operations. The operational savings alone would pay for the system in just four years.

Did it work? Yes, according to a Dartmouth report on the project. The phones rang, and people made calls. Ninety-five percent of the campus was thrilled.

As always, there were problems. A review of the project reported that not enough time was spent training users about differences. Reception features, provided by software, were not adequate when the system was turned on. Users complained about the lack of a consistent phone type. Privacy panels on desks caused installation delays.

In the end, Dartmouth said that VoIP is delivering on its technical and financial promises. What does Dartmouth have to say about the future of VoIP?

“It is no longer a question of if, but when.”