VoIP in vogue on campus

Why campuses are upgrading to next-generation phone systems—and how yours can make the switch

Have you ever made a call with a soft phone? You have if you’ve ever Skyped or used FaceTime. It also means you’re on the cutting-edge of phone communications.

Sean Jameson, chief technology officer at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, knew it was time to upgrade campus phones when he realized the traditional cable-based system couldn’t grow because no new cable could be laid.

“We cannot get too deep without hitting bedrock,” he says of the college’s Bronxville location. “Previous runs (those already laid) were failing at alarming rates.”

The system was so old, users didn’t even have caller ID—and that feature couldn’t be added. The college also couldn’t extend the phone to system to a new satellite office being opened. Luckily, the campus did already have fiber networks capable of supporting an expansion.

Sarah Lawrence’s story isn’t unique. With large, aging PBX (private branch exchange) systems requiring more maintenance and with new ways of using phones, the economics of the industry have changed from being hardware-based to software/ licensing based. Institutions are switching to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).

There’s a new term, as well: unified communications, which comprises phone calls, texting, conference calling, video chats, voice mail, email, desktop sharing and the idea of user “presence” information, to name just a few.

Not all new systems feature all aspects of unified communications, although most are capable. It often comes down to what a campus needs and wants. Then officials can make it happen.

Evaluating the need

Besides issues with laying cable, failing hardware could be the impetus for a phone system upgrade.

That was the case at Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio, which was on a PBX system built in the late 1990s, just as the company that installed it pulled out of the North American market. The university had to find parts through third-party vendors and couldn’t upgrade the phones, says CIO Greg Flanik. “Our system was pretty arcane for the better part of the last 15 years.” He oversaw the installation of a ShoreTel system from Teletronics, completed in early 2015.

Other campuses have multiple phone systems that can’t be linked. “I suppose there is a fancy technical term for it, but it was just a mess,” says Kent Brooks, IT director at Casper College in Wyoming of the school’s dual systems. “We were not going to be able to grow that without forklifting it entirely.” Brooks brought in a VoIP system to address those problems.

Another consideration: Phone and communications needs have evolved. People are texting, conferencing, video chatting and emailing on phones. VoIP, which carries phone calls over the internet, is the current trend. It uses traditional handsets that connect to the internet through data connections, and most VoIP systems have adapters for equipment, such as fax machines, that still require hardwired phone lines.

Flanik, at Baldwin Wallace, pushed for unified communications. “The phone system is just a small piece. There is enterprise conferencing, web conferencing, chat, instant messages—that is all part of the phone upgrade,” he says. “Anyone should be able to work from anywhere you can get a data connection, Wi-Fi or wired.”

He also wanted the system to be user-friendly. “I had to use a reasonable approach and go with what people are comfortable with,” he says. For example, the handset looks like any other phone’s handset. There are just more features.

At Sarah Lawrence, where the old infrastructure was failing, Jameson says the wish list started simple with caller ID. But now system admins can make changes for how many lines are on a phone and create and control “hunt groups” (how calls get routed to certain numbers). Users can control their ring time, tone and type depending on who is calling, and they can schedule different answering messages depending on time and date. These features are controlled on a website interface by each user.

The team also added the ability for calls to follow users off-campus. Users can make calls from other devices or a mobile app and have them appear to come from campus. More features will be added as the college phases in Lightpath’s Hosted Voice service by the end of summer 2016.

System costs

Old-style systems often cost more than $1 million to purchase. That’s a difficult number to budget for. But new systems are less expensive, and with good reason—it’s about software more than the hardware. Companies license the software; the handsets are secondary.

Jeff Carman, director of information technology at Eastern Oregon University, replaced about 500 phones and spent just $27,000 doing a system upgrade with provider Jive Communications. “The return on investment has been more in a measure of savings,” he says, adding that the move to VoIP eliminated the need for costly hard upgrades as well as the need for outside consultants to work on the infrastructure.

Casper College has a similar story.

The college spent about $200,000 to have the new 700-phone system—Asterick open source software with Digium’s Switchvox—take over from two older systems. Standardizing handsets across campus and upgrading communications capabilities were part of the project, which drove recurring costs to “near zero,” says Brooks.

Casper’s spend is on the low end of new systems. Baldwin Wallace replaced its entire system and 1,500 phones for about one-third of the cost of the 16-year-old PBX system, which at the time required a $1.5 million investment, Flanik estimates.

At Sarah Lawrence, the hosting is all with the provider, so the school needs no full telecom group. “We cannot afford to build an infrastructure [to host],” says Jameson, “and we have made a monumental leap forward without that big of an investment. It was a short conversation with the CFO at the time.”

Rolling it out

Installating a VoIP system is relatively quick—as campuses are already wired for the internet, and VoIP is internet-based. And training, while important, is minimal.

Corrine Bolt, assistant vice president for IT at the University of Pikeville in Kentucky, calls the move to a new Avaya system seamless. The switch took less than three months, with most of the installation taking place during winter break in late 2014. Helping smooth the installation: Avaya was already the university’s provider, the system is relatively small (321 phones), and not all handsets had to be replaced.

Casper College’s installation took about a year, going online in July 2014. “We phased the systems in, trying to do it in a fashion that wouldn’t interrupt everyone’s lives,” says Brooks. As for training, he adds, there was a learning curve. Rollout included a comprehensive training series.

Sarah Lawrence, Jameson says, took a “train the trainer” approach. “Some people get it right away, others do not. In the end it is about the experience of actually using the phone. It is different from the older phone, and we learned we have to grow into it.”

What’s next

As phones become more reliant on web-based systems, the soft phone—working entirely through the computer—will replace handsets.

“If you wanted to save costs on a system, you could do soft phones,” says Flanik, yet most users still prefer a traditional handset. He suggests being realistic about how users are going to adapt to new features.

Whatever the choice, a new phone system must keep up with the times and the demands. Putting users in charge of their own options is a big step forward and brings flexibility and efficiencies that did not exist before.

The future will be more cloud based and there will likely be fewer phones on the desks at any university, says Arthur Brant, director of enterprise infrastructure at Abilene Christian University in Texas. “I have professors who don’t care if there is a physical phone on their desk already. They want to know how they can leverage the cell phone in their pocket.” While systems aren’t ready to go to only cell phones, users can now, at least, typically forward office numbers to their own cell.

Flexibility and adaptability—that is the phone game now.

6 questions to consider…

…when consulting phone system vendors

  1. How many phones will we need?
  2. Who will host it? Campuses can host their own systems or have a company manage the server.
  3. What is the backup plan? VoIP phones rely on a solid internet connection, so a dual-sourced internet provider or having redundant, diverse paths to the internet may be needed.
  4. What emergency phone system will be in place? Make sure callers can still place emergency phone calls in the event of a system failure.
  5. Will the new company allow us to run a test on a few new phones after receiving RFPs?
  6. What will we need in the future?

Barb Freda is a North Carolina-based writer.


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