Missed Connections

Missed Connections

Landlines are increasingly unused on college campuses. Does this have to mean revenue has gone missing as well?

When Harrisburg University of Science and Technology (PA.) opened its doors in 2005, its leaders made sure buildings and classrooms were ready, and that the school's wireless network was robust. One item left off the list was phone landlines.

"For us, it was about flexibility, and creating a system that's geared toward the future," says Eric Darr, Harrisburg's executive vice president. "We knew we could integrate phone calls with e-mail, and have a communication system that's closer to how students use technology these days. We barely considered putting landlines in the buildings."

Should a campus be wired for phone service? It's a question that would have seemed odd only a few years ago. Although the answer used to be "yes" without fail, many institutions of higher ed are now seriously examining the issue, pondering whether traditional telephone company-based lines should be put into new buildings, or even yanked from a campus altogether.

The move away from landlines is a change sparked by students, and it's being felt most in the accounts receivable office. Thanks to the popularity of cell phones, many colleges are getting socked by a revenue loss from decreased telephone landline usage on landlines that go completely unused. Dorm room phones, once a solid revenue stream of long distance charges, now rarely ring, and IHEs either don't necessarily provide landline handsets or may not even have the service installed in new buildings.

In response, some institutions are looking elsewhere for revenue or, where they can, cutting down on budgets. But other IHEs are determined to get back at least some of the missing funds on phone service, with initiatives that include partnerships with wireless companies, renting roof space to cellular providers, creating an in-college phone company, or considering new directions for VoIP.

Unlike creating a wireless network strategy and rolling it out-which is fairly standard practice, even if various components like vendors and network setup are tweaked-initiatives designed to make up for lost landline revenue are usually on a college-by-college basis. In other words, many are trying to find the path while simultaneously creating a map, and the endeavor can be tricky.

In deciding how to wrangle revenue from a dwindling source, some IHEs have inked deals that bring together wireless providers and university and college administrators. Most often, these partnerships are with cell service providers like Verizon, Cingular, or T-Mobile, which pay for the ability to set up cell sites or have exclusive selling rights on campus.

For example, Cingular Wireless and Murray State University (Ky.) have teamed up to place two cell sites near campus, as part of a broad sweep by Cingular to expand its coverage in Kentucky and southern Indiana. Cellular providers have been keen to rent roof space from IHEs, in order to boost their signals. The strategy is beneficial for institutions since it brings in revenue, and roof rights access has become particularly competitive in the last few years.

"Partnering with companies like T-Mobile and Cingular can be very beneficial," says Doug Kudravetz, assistant vice president for finance at American University (D.C.). "These deals can create opportunities not only with voice services, but also with a broader wireless plan." The university provided both companies with access to its antenna systems in exchange for rate plan discounts for AU students and staff. In 2005, all hardwire telephone service was discontinued in residence halls, and students were steered toward the Cingular plans (an effort that experienced a good conversion rate, Kudravetz notes).

"There's a shift in communications and if we, as a college, don't address it, we stand to lose a connection with our students." -Keith Fowlkes, St. Mary's College

The University of Notre Dame (Ind.) set up a different kind of partnership with AT&T-outsourcing telecommunications service for faculty and staff office telephones after phone service was removed from residence halls. The university is currently looking at developing a cellular resale program with Cingular and AT&T and is talking with Rave Wireless about implementing service plans.

Rave has focused on promoting the benefits of its mobile phone program, which bundles applications and services. More than 100 IHEs are reportedly either implementing the program or in discussions with the vendor. Those that have signed up include Georgetown University (D.C.), The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and California State University, Monterey Bay.

Rave's mobile programs are tailored to the institution. For example, at Allen University (S.C.), students are given phones preloaded with Rave's wireless applications. But at Georgetown, students use their own phones and are given access to Rave features through the wireless company's service.

With either configuration, programs allow students to receive broadcast alerts that are sent out to individual students or large groups, get e-mail, tap into the campus directory, or participate in classroom surveys.

In general, IHEs seem to be moving slowly toward developing more partnerships, says Rodger Desai, chief executive officer at Rave. Many aren't putting in new landlines and are sometimes removing what currently exists, but the pace is far from rapid in inking new deals with vendors. "Many institutions don't want to make new investments," he notes. "They are trying to decide whether it's better to have some landlines for security reasons, or to increase cellular coverage, and that can be a difficult decision."

St. Olaf College (Minn.) is taking a novel approach to gain communications-based revenue. Rather than relying on partnerships with cell carriers, St. Olaf's telecommunications department decided to create its own phone company, effectively becoming a competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC), which competes with local phone providers to offer landline service. Carleton College, also located in the town of Northfield, uses St. Olaf's service.

St. Olaf officials were looking for a way to cut telecommunications costs when they found revenues slipping because of cell phone use. Also, their town was added to the local calling zone for the Twin Cities after being long distance in the past.

"We became a CLEC to save some money," says Craig Dunton, director of telecommunications for both St. Olaf and Carleton. "We're used to doing things ourselves, so we invested in installing our own fiber optic and copper cable."

Dunton had approached college officials in 1997 with the idea, and administrators expressed hesitancy about getting into the phone business, but Dunton kept talking over the years and they began to see the sense of his vision. It helped that rates from the local company, Qwest, had been climbing higher and higher.

In the future, institutions may simply hand their faculty cell phones rather than give them office extensions.

The installation of a fiber cable between St. Olaf and Carleton not only gave the colleges high-speed internet, but created an infrastructure that encircled downtown Northfield. St. Olaf began selling internet services to the town to make up for landline revenue loss, and then its leaders decided to install a microwave system to boost coverage. The microwave was $400,000, according to Dunton, but it saves the colleges $29,000 per month in access charges.

The college plans to begin selling telephone service within the next few years, once the details of becoming the town's new phone company are worked out. "We're encouraged to think outside of what would normally be done at a college," says Dunton. "For example, we have our own generator and wind turbine, so we're not connected to the power company. So it makes sense to disconnect from the phone company, too."

While Dunton's CLEC setup may be intriguing, the investment and experience necessary to make it work are out of reach for many institutions. So many administrators have found themselves weighing the options available and are in the midst of trying out technology, having meetings, and basically attempting to understand the array of possibilities in terms of communications. The issue involves much more than trying to generate revenue, says Keith Fowlkes, chief information officer at St. Mary's College (Ind.). Part of the challenge is also understanding fundamental cultural changes, he notes.

"Most of us who are trying to decide on these partnerships and technologies come from a different culture, a different era, than the students," Fowlkes says. "There's a shift in communications and if we, as a college, don't address it, we stand to lose a connection with our students. We're not just pulling out phone service; we have to put in meaningful technology."

Fowlkes recently came up with an extensive mobile initiative research brief that lays out the options for administrators (see "Four Strategies for Replacing Landlines," below). St. Mary's is exploring programs like giving out mini-notebook computers, creating a comprehensive VoIP rollout, using IP-enabled communication service Skype, and reselling cellular service.

"Right now, it's just a matter of looking at all the costs and benefits for the school," says Fowlkes. "The difficult thing is that you have to anticipate how the technology life cycle is going to go, and take a chance that what you put in now will pay off in the future."

Other IHEs must keep geography and availability of services in mind while exploring options. The rural campus of Buena Vista University (Iowa) has a Wi-Fi network, but not all devices are supported. Also problematic: BVU's underground facilities are great for avoiding wintry Midwestern windchills, but terrible for wireless signals. Although a micro-cell site was installed last year, IT administrators are still struggling with how to replace the school's landlines.

"We use plenty of VoIP, but the primary communication platforms at this point are e-mail and instant messaging," says Ken Clipperton, managing director of University Information. "There's no way we can do a cooperative plan for cell phones bought from the university if it only works on half the campus."

Officals hesitate to license more VoIP endpoints; few students have VoIP-accessible devices. Also, the technology isn't quite up to snuff yet, Clipperton notes. So, its phone service is left as something of a work in progress. "At this point, we're not making up the revenue from loss of landlines," he says. "We adjusted our telecom budgets a few years ago and it was a painful process. I said, 'Let's just plan for zero,' and it turned out to be pretty close." New systems are needed, but they can no longer be funded off long distance revenue.

Many IHEs are at a similar stage: exploring options without having a solid plan in place yet. The lack of use in dorms has started to spread to administration offices for numerous colleges, and Guy Clinch, Avaya's director of solutions for government and education, notes that it's likely more institutions in the future will simply hand their faculty cell phones rather than give them office extensions.

Rather than see the issue as one of dire financial straits, Clinch believes cutting the landline cord to dorm rooms and offices is an opportunity. "You have a population of people who are technologically literate," he says. "They're used to many different communication channels, and now campuses are able to connect with them in several ways."

Colleges and universities that find a way to control the applications and features being accessed on a cell phone will be able to keep in touch with students, Clinch notes. As Fowlkes noted, the lack of landlines has the potential to disconnect an IHE from its students, but Clinch believes it doesn't have to lead to that, and in fact, can bring them closer together.

"Students are more autonomous than ever, but creating services that are useful will keep them tied to the university," he says. For example, some wireless vendors offer a tracking mechanism that can locate a cell user on campus through cell site triangulation. So, if a student wants to turn on the feature while, say, walking back to a dorm late at night, campus security can "watch" her progress remotely to make sure she arrives on time and safely.

"There are many communications applications that can be layered on top of voice services," says Clinch. "Exploring how to go beyond landlines and create a multilayered communications strategy is a tremendous opportunity for institutions. It gives them the chance to connect students, faculty, and staff in entirely new and effective ways."

Elizabeth Millard, a freelance writer based in Saint Louis Park, Minn., specializes in covering technology.


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