Oct 31 2006

What Do Students Think About VoIP?

Student feedback determines the direction of a VoIP project at Misericordia University.

Upgrading and investing in IT is a laborious process for most colleges and universities, and Misericordia University, a Catholic liberal arts institution in Dallas, Pa., with more than 2,300 students, is no exception.

Making such an investment is a decision that trickles through almost every fabric of the institution and has a direct impact on students, faculty, staff and outside constituencies. The IT department also has to consider security issues, performance standards – and the bottom line.

That's why Misericordia, led by Mark Reboli, network and telecomm- unications manager, studied the complex issues of a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) system and conducted a student survey before purchasing a state-of-the-art Cisco Systems product in July 2005.

We spent 18 months determining the best option for providing service to our residence hall students, since so many use cell phones rather than landline phones. After surveying students to understand their preferences, we phased out our traditional private branch exchange (PBX) in favor of a VoIP system covering the entire campus, yet allowing resident students to use traditional telephones through an IP-based interface.

The college considered many technical issues, such as quality of service, network infrastructure and Power over Ethernet (PoE). A multiple-choice survey that polled students' phone-calling patterns simplified the decision.

We received 540 responses to the eight-question survey. An overwhelming number of the students surveyed (84 percent) consider their cell phone their primary phone, and 76 percent use it more than once a day on campus. However, they still want to make local calls or talk to professors or classmates on a traditional dorm phone: Forty percent use their dorm phone daily and 60 percent use it weekly or less often.

Based on the survey results and other research, we concluded that the college could not move entirely away from providing basic phone service in residence halls.

“When you say you care about students' needs, you have to back it up,” says Kit Foley, assistant dean of students. “Certainly, the institution can't meet every student's request, nor does it make sense to do so. In this case, student feedback helped to create a win-win.”

Providing long-distance service had been a money-generating stream for institutions of higher education for several years. Misericordia University realized about $18,000 in revenue through long-distance calling in 2000, which did not include the costs associated with billing. Four years later, that stream had slowed to a trickle as cell phones slowly chipped away at revenue. When the college pulled the plug on traditional long-distance service in 2004, it registered less than $1,000 in student bills, minus other associated costs.

In the end, Misericordia University got out of the traditional phone business. We were able to provide students with room phones by going to a VoIP solution that also allows phone calls over the Internet Protocol on a conventional phone. If students want to make a long-distance call, however, they have to use a prepaid phone card.

Upgrading the Network

The former PBX system served the college well throughout its lease. However, we aggressively embarked on researching new technology to determine whether the network infrastructure could support a VoIP implementation. After projecting the costs of maintaining the PBX, we realized that moving to the upgraded system would allow us to reallocate funds to new technology beyond VoIP. The challenge then became finalizing our system requirements to make sure the selected solution could handle all phone issues and features on campus.

We didn't save a significant amount of money in the new five-year lease term: $426,951 for Cisco Systems versus $449,650 for the PBX. But instead of investing in an antiquated system, we installed network upgrades that benefited resident students and the college community alike.

The transformation from the analog phone and PBX system, which essentially allowed the college to operate its own internal phone system, involved other technical and provider issues. After finishing our analysis and making a selection, we hired an independent third-party consultant to review proposals from two vendors and two integrators.

The selected integrator had to present a solid implementation strategy, provide references and have a solid track record of ongoing maintenance. It was also important to have a single solution, because we didn't want to support a traditional phone system along with a VoIP product. We also considered the amount of space required to house the new solution.

“One question was critical,” Reboli recalls. “Was the company running its own business on the phone system it was [trying to] sell me to run mine? If so, that [would] speak volumes.”

Our goal was to remove the old PBX and do a flash cut to the new VoIP solution. Therefore, my department focused on ensuring that we had the network infrastructure in place to handle the new solution, and that the integrator developed a detailed implementation plan that covered all issues.

All along, we believed the network was capable of supporting the new system, but we still insisted that the integrator review the network and document findings for possible network shortcomings. We also required the integrator to write up and price any shortcomings in its overall proposal.

This process enabled us to assess both integrators' level of network expertise and how they related to the VoIP solution. Our network had no issues with implementation because our deployment of Cisco's VoIP was textbook. For years leading up to the VoIP implementation, we had strategically chosen higher level PoE switches to keep our options open for future wireless and VoIP projects.

The independent consultant agreed with the Cisco approach for several reasons. The unsuccessful vendor approached the solution by trying to enhance a traditional analog phone system into a network or VoIP phone system. Cisco approached it from a design level and built a phone system that would run on the data network. Choosing Cisco enabled us to have one vendor for both the data network and the VoIP solution and eliminated the possibility of finger-pointing when trying to resolve issues.

“We have Cisco phones, connected to Cisco switches, connected to a Cisco core, connected to a Cisco phone system,” Reboli says. “It doesn't get much cleaner.”

Considering Options

We selected the Cisco Call Manager and implemented three call manager servers. The second server provides redundancy, and the third allows us to implement any upgrades and properly test them before rolling them out in the production environment. That future-proofs the network, which may one day include smart phones for notebook and desktop PCs for all users.

We provided traditional dial tone to our resident students in a cost-effective manner by deploying Cisco VG248 devices. Calls are routed from the residence halls over traditional phone lines to the VG248, which converts them to the Call Manager.

Our final decision enabled the college's nearly 800 resident students to bring their own phone with an answering machine to campus and make long-distance calls – albeit with calling cards.

Implementing the VoIP solution took six weeks. The biggest issue was the delayed delivery of the Call Manager software.

The Cisco product gave the college the ability to take care of VoIP and traditional phone services through one solution. Plus, the PBX had required five racks, while the new solution uses only one-and-a-half racks, generates less heat and saves valuable space in the server room.

Our overall project goal was to implement new technology at or near the cost of the PBX. VoIP afforded us that opportunity and enabled us to replace outdated equipment on our student network. Another bonus of VoIP was it allowed us to add Clean Access to better manage the student network. Sister Jean Messaros, the dean of students, and her staff were involved in each step of the process. They expressed their concerns about the transition from PBX to VoIP and helped craft the student survey. “[The students] were happy they were included,” says Foley.

Including multiple layers of the college community ensured that our goal of upgrading technology, future-proofing the network at a reasonable cost and providing service to our constituents ended successfully.

Val Apanovich is IT director at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa. A graduate of King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., he has more than 26 years of IT experience in the telecommunications sector and higher education.

Tips From the VoIP Voice of Experience

Consult: Get input from all your constituencies – administrators, faculty, staff, resident and commuter students – before making decisions.

Analyze: What shortcomings do your current system and network have? Is the network capable of supporting the new system?

Hire: Bring in an independent third-party consultant to review proposals from vendors and integrators.

Demand: Require integrators to write up and price any existing system and network shortcomings in their overall proposals.

Ask: Find out if the integrator is running its own business on the phone system it wants to sell you.

Consider: Is using one vendor for the whole system preferable to having separate vendors for your data network and phone system?

Develop: Will your detailed implementation plan cover all the issues involved in installing and supporting the new system?

Evaluate: Solicit feedback from your constituencies and set up a plan to address problems over the long term.

How Misericordia Students Use Phones

84% use a cell phone as their primary phone.

76% more than once a day
12% once a day
7% a few times a week
5% almost never

45% no
30% yes
26% not sure

60% weekly or less often
40% daily

Number of respondents: 540

Source: Misericordia University, Resident Student Telephone Use Survey, Dec. 2004

*Adds up to 101% due to rounding.

More On