VOIP freeing colleges from wired phones

U.S. college extends network features to student mobile phones

With wired phones dying off at colleges, IT executives on campus are looking to VOIP and unified communications platforms as ways to meet the needs of students and faculty using wireless devices.

Bowdoin College in Maine, U.S., for example, is looking to extend its private network phone features to student cell phones, says Mitch Davis, the school's CIO, who spoke at this week's Association for Communications Professionals in Higher Education Summit on IP Communications in Higher Education.

The school has made a deal with Cingular to install enough cell towers so everyone can get four-bars reception anywhere on campus, then run an application on the phones that ties them into the campus VOIP network, Davis 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 students signs up for classes, the registrar's office can populate their schedules to their cell phones," Davis says.

At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, professors at the medical school can teach at any of several campuses and be on call to practice medicine at the hospital, says Deborah Contrella, the university's director of IT. That leaves them carrying cell phones, pagers and PDAs, and running between offices that each have their own landline.

The school is in the midst of a developmental trial with vendors she would not name for dual-mode wireless phones that hook into the school's 802.11 wireless networks when they are available or into public cellular service when Wi-Fi is not, Contrella says. The goal is to deliver smartphone handsets that connect to a unified e-mail/voice mail server so these itinerant professors can deal with their communications more efficiently.

She says that so far the technology -- particularly cellular-to-Wi-Fi handoffs -- is iffy but improving.

The Telephone Planning Advisory Group at the University of California at Irvine has shown interest in merging VOIP, e-mail and voice mail with mobile phones, says Brian Buckler, director of network and telecom operations for the school.

"We discussed replacing voice mail so we could tie it in with mobility and they were very excited," he says.

At Swarthmore College outside Philadelphia, wired phones are definitely out. Students get a phone jack in their room but have to bring their own phone if they want to use it, says Mark Dumic, associate director of networking and systems at the school. "Seventy-three percent have phones plugged in with no long-distance service," he says, because nearly all use cell phones instead. "And they don't want to give us their cell phone numbers.

North Carolina State University is making wired dormitory phones optional this fall, and if students want a phone they have to sign up for the service, says Greg Sparks, director of communication technologies at the school, which has 31,000 students. "We just had the first week of signups and one student signed up," he says.

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