New College, Durham likes to keep ahead of the curve on technology. It's installing a system that will save money by letting staff use mobile phones to make calls over the college Wi-Fi network.
"We're at the beginning of a long journey," says Alan Race, assistant director of ICT and purchasing at the college, which has around 16,000 full- and part-time students on degree-level and vocational courses, and employs about 500 people - some of whom are now getting Wi-Fi equipped cellphones that connect to the phone system through a fixed-mobile convergence appliance from DiVitas Networks.
Voice on IP systems are widely used, and wireless LANs are commonplace, but few companies have extended telephony onto their wireless LAN yet, even though this would allow staff to work more flexibly within the campus, using a mobile handset as their regular PBX extension wherever they are. It can also save money, since staff would no longer make cellular calls on campus.
Network managers have steered clear of voice on Wi-Fi so far, because the technology has been untried, the handsets bulky and power-hungry, and implementations have imposed unpopular devices and awkward user interfaces on the user. At the same time, mobile operators have been steering users away from the technology by making better deals for corporate cellphones.
New College was in a better position than many to take the plunge, since it already has a well-established converged network, using Cisco's Call Manager VoIP PBX. It was one of the first UK colleges to adopt IP telephony, and converged voice and data in 2004, during a £35 million campus renovation.
Telindus, the network services company that put this network in, added a reliable Wi-Fi LAN from Trapeze in 2006, with around 55 access points that cover the campus. "That went in without a hiccup," says Race.
Convergence for £100 per user
It wasn't a big step to add an appliance-based convergence system to this, says Race, who reckons the costs came out to under £100 per user. The DiVitas MMC appliance provides roaming between the Trapeze Wi-Fi and the GSM networks, independent of the mobile operator, and allows the mobile phones to act as PBX extensions even off site - using a DiVitas software client that runs on each phone.
So far, a pilot project with four phones has been completed, and Race now plans to give dual-mode phones to around 30 staff.
The project took advantage of the college's upgrade cycles "The mobile contract changes now anyway, and I was going to invest in new phones," says Race.
Most users have four-year old phones, and will be moved onto dual-mode phones, which Race says have only just become practical: "This came along at the right time - there are things you can run on a phone today that were not available last year."
About fifty new access points are being added to the wireless LAN at the same time, to increase capacity and fill in dead spots. Again, this was an upgrade that would have been required in any case, says Race: "The users are demanding - they want more laptops in the classrooms."
Justified by savings and flexibility
Overall, the move to converged wireless voice was easy to justify on cost grounds, even though the major benefit was in increased flexibility. "Half of our call costs are mobile - and they are increasing year by year," says Race, who pays around £30 thousand to £40 thousand a year for 100 mobile phones, which he provides for teaching staff and IT personnel who are increasingly mobile.
"Education is changing," he says. "We have a lot of peripatetic staff, going out to local businesses, who like to take a phone with them." They use the phone's camera to take pictures of the work done by students on placements, he says. They also make a lot of mobile calls on campus - which can be replaced directly with VoIP calls over the wireless LAN.
Similarly, for some staff on site, the dual-mode mobile phone can replace the Cisco 7960 IP deskphone - he has around 600, which cost around £200 a shot, so it's a saving worth making, he says.
Race is very keen to give users a good experience - for practical reasons: "You've got to make sure the person gets the mobile phone they want," he says. "If you don't give people a choice, they won't use it - though there's always got to be a good degree of control. You have to have a selection of phones available to suit each user - and on top of that, you have to have the right software on the phone."
College staff will either use Nokia E-series phones, such as the E65, or else the touch-screen HTC Touch Cruise, a phone he is particularly pleased with: "I've shown it to twenty senior managers - they all preferred it to the E65." He's also planning to offer a Blackberry-type phone - and to use the phones to extend IT services to users who would otherwise not be using them.
“Many people on our staff don’t have a PC, but they have a phone. Yet they have the same requirements as any other office worker, such as email access, calendaring access and lowest-cost calling method,” says Race. “Turning to mobile phones as an alternative to purchasing a computer for every employee is not only more economical, it has the added value of making them more reachable, which leads to improved productivity. Best of all, we can do all of this without skyrocketing mobile bills thanks to Wi-Fi.”
Race has already got ideas for the future. An upcoming feature will allow him to track phones, so staff can be found easily. The same feature would allow the college to give more support to "at risk" students - providing disabled people with as normal a college experience as possible.
It may be possible to give all students access to the college phone system if they have dual-mode phones. They already have free access to the Wi-Fi and will probably be experimenting with mobile VoIP software such as Skype or Truphone in any case.
Further down the line he expects other benefits as new features get added to the system. A push-to-talk feature will shortly be available, that would allow him to replace an expensive set of walkie-talkies that some staff use. "If we get the right form of smartphone, we can give them one phone instead of three," says Race.