Upgrading to VoIP offers colleges a wide array of functions to control telephony while also reducing telecommunications fees.
By the middle of 2008, the legacy PBX system at Moraine Park Technical College in Wisconsin was showing its age. Originally installed in 1993, the equipment often broke down. The need for frequent repairs placed an increasing burden on the facilities management department, and finding replacement parts was difficult. There was no getting around it: The system was badly in need of a major upgrade.
“We knew that we weren't providing adequate phone service to the students,” says John Schuppe, the college's director of network services. “Many of them told us that their calls were dropped or put on continuous hold.”
The path of least resistance for the college, which has campuses in Beaver Dam, Fond du Lac and West Bend and regional education centers in Ripon and Hartford, would have been to purchase a new PBX system. But Schuppe and Karl Reischl, the school's network analyst, were looking to the future.
“Our goal was to get out of the PBX business and into something that was more functional, something that could boost our communications capability by giving us features we couldn't get with a PBX,” Reischl says.
72% of organizations were able to achieve a return on their unified communications investment within the first 12 months, and 99% were able to achieve ROI within the first two years.
Source: Aberdeen Group
College officials decided to migrate to a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) system based on equipment from Cisco Systems. Because voice data would run over the IP network, the school could enjoy the increased functionality from the integration of voice and data applications.
“Since we would not need to rely on an outside technician to make adds, changes and deletes, we could make those changes faster,” adds Schuppe.
Lower costs for equipment, better administrative tools and more intuitive handsets and desktop applications are making VoIP a reasonable option for colleges of virtually any size. While the initial interest in this technology was based on the desire to eliminate fees to telecommunications companies, schools are now equally focused on the increased functionality that VoIP offers compared with traditional telephony.
Vanessa Alvarez, industry analyst for information, communications and technologies at Frost & Sullivan, says that the changing value proposition from cost savings to acquiring new features is driving increased interest in the technology.
“When schools were strictly focused on cost savings, VoIP was a harder sell for IT to make since the upfront cost of the initial conversion to VoIP ate up most of the savings in the early years,” Alvarez says. “But making the case for new features such as unified communications is much easier.”
With VoIP, Moraine Park was able to create an efficient call center. In the past, when students called to get information about admissions, financial aid or other issues, the operator would route the call to the appropriate department. With luck, the caller would be immediately connected to the person who could answer the question on the first call. But more often than not, the caller would have to be transferred a number of times, wait on hold for minutes, leave a message and wait for a call back – or worse, have the call dropped altogether.
“Our goal was to end all that by providing a single call center where most of the questions could be answered immediately,” says Karen Zuehlke, who manages the school's One Stop Call Center.
The IP system offers a number of features that let a five-phone call center offer service that would normally require many more employees. For one thing, the supervisory software that's part of the system tracks call volume and length, who is on their phone, and who is logged in but not ready.
Easy to Use
Elgin Community College in Elgin, Ill., also moved to a VoIP system when it had to upgrade its aging PBX and decided it wanted the added functionality that IP telephony affords. But Michael Chahino, director of network operations and information security, was well aware that new features have zero value if they are so complex to use that they are ignored. He also recognized that support for the system will erode if implementation is so difficult that rollout or administrative functions take too much time. Accordingly, many of the school's important buying criteria were related to intuitive use and ease of implementation and administration.
The college ultimately opted for ShoreTel gear, and it was able to quickly roll out an impressive set of features that changed the way people at the college communicate.
Employees can use their computers to dial their phones and keep notes on the content of the calls. All call information, such as missed calls and voicemail, is now integrated with the school's Microsoft Exchange system. Users also can send faxes directly from their desktops and use their PCs to set up call forwarding and other functions.
The VoIP features are even integrated with the school's public safety system. When someone calls 911, an alert appears on the computers and the mobile devices of school security personnel.
At Texas A&M University, the IT staff decided it wanted to include users in the mix even before its Polycom VoIP system was purchased. The school has an extensive telecommunications lab – a regional Internet2 Technology Evaluation Center – with which it has done work for national government agencies, including the Department of Transportation, the Department of Commerce and the National Science Foundation, among others.
As a part of the campus VoIP deployment, before the vendor was selected, the college set up a lab where users could test the equipment extensively and tell the IT staff which phones they liked best, explains Walt Magnussen, director for telecommunications and co-director of the evaluation center. Besides helping the school select the vendor, a customer advisory committee was responsible for testing and also served as a training group for the VoIP system. The school is now one year into what is expected to be an eight-year project to move 35,000 handsets to a Polycom VoIP system.
Magnussen says he doesn't anticipate major cost savings from the move to VoIP, but expects the school to benefit from a host of new telephony functions. For instance, by integrating the VoIP system with the school's Lightweight Directory Access Protocol directory of telephone numbers, the switch has made it much easier for users to dial colleagues. Magnussen is also implementing features from the Polycom Productivity Suite, including call recording, video conferencing and voice quality monitoring.
Because VoIP is so new at most colleges, few have been able to quantify specific cost savings. But Chahino of Elgin Community College believes that the technology is saving the college money. The primary cost savings, he says, are easier maintenance, which can now be done from a central PC, and lower travel costs because users can take advantage of voice or video conferencing.
“In the past, if someone moved or we had to remove a phone, we had to send someone there to do it,” he says. “Now, it's all done with software. That gives us a very big savings in time and effort.”