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New phone system coming for St. John’s campus and OSC

May 10, 2006

Memorial University's St. John's campus is getting a new phone system.

Voice over Internet Protocol (or VoIP, pronounced “voyp”) is considered the future of telephony. Unlike a traditional telephone that uses wiring dedicated only to phone calls, VoIP uses the data network wiring used for computer communications. This multi-purposing results long term savings, but the real win comes from new functionality that is now possible because VoIP is based on the same dynamic internet protocol technology of MUNet and the Internet.

This VoIP initiative is part of a much larger undertaking by the Department of Computing and Communications. In the spring of 2005, Memorial entered into a five-year strategic relationship with IBM Canada Ltd. to update and streamline the university's technology and install new Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) to allow the university to operate more efficiently and effectively. Watch for a separate article on this broader Infrastructure Renewal Project in the near future.

Memorial's decision to replace the traditional “Centrex” phone service on the St. John's campus with VoIP puts the university in the same league as other tech-savvy institutions such as the University of British Columbia,  Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, Concordia and Laval.

The Marine Institute is actively considering undertaking VoIP for 2007. Grenfell College currently has a relatively new Public Branch Exchange (PBX) with some VoIP functionality which will continue to meet their telecommunications requirements for some time.

Way of the future

“Medium to large organizations have always had some sort of private telephone arrangements, such as self-owned private branch exchange (PBX) systems like that at Grenfell College, or managed Centrex services like we currently have here,” said Brian Power, associate director of technology in Computing and Communications, and the VoIP project authority. “We see VoIP as a strategic step toward the integration of voice and data systems. This integration will open up many new possibilities that universities can take advantage of to remain competitive. Though it will take years for all the capabilities and benefits to be realized, VoIP is an effective and flexible voice solution for Memorial, yielding cost savings over a traditional phone system and positioning the university to be among the early adopters of this technology.”

“The new phone system will work over the university's data network, allowing people to connect their phone to any active network drop on campus” Mr. Power noted. “Furthermore, with appropriate security software, your laptop can be setup with a “softphone” and a Memorial phone number that can go with you anywhere you can connect to the Internet.”

The Department of Computing and Communications is co-coordinating the phasing in of the new phones. Audrey Power, VoIP project manager, heads a multi-department implementation committee that will ensure a smooth transition to the new system which is being phased in over the next year. Ms. Power said that while the committee will provide valuable advice from a university-wide perspective, the project team will also work closely with individual departments to ease this transition. 

It's a phone, it's a PC!

VoIP phones are digital and can carry both sound and data. The new phones are really a very specialized PC; less functional than a Blackberry device but capable of much more than a phone. The new system allows for a number of interesting possibilities. “For example, the phones come equipped with small screens that can display information,” Ms. Power noted. “A new feature that is immediately available is access to several directories. From the phone, you can search a VoIP corporate directory which contains a list of everyone on Memorial's VoIP system. You can also create your own personal address book on a VoIP web page that can be searched from the phone. We are already looking into several new features that are now possible because of the new capabilities. One is “pushing” central messages out to all the phones. Another that I'm personally looking forward to is access to voice mail through your e-mail; when you receive a phone message you also receive an e-mail that you can then listen to on any PC with sound capability and you can save it as you would any other e-mail message. ”

Because the technological line between phone and PC is blurring, additional software can now turn a laptop with a microphone and speaker into a “phone”, or, in the parlance of the IT industry, a “soft phone.” This would allow employees traveling on business to access any high speed internet connection and their phone will ring wherever in the world they are logged in. Long distance charges would be replaced with much cheaper internet access costs.

Similarly, at some point in the future, a student may be accessing a web course from home and need to ask a question. A button on the screen could trigger the web server to initiate a “call” between the student's PC and someone on-campus designated to provide help. The system could display the student's information automatically on the assistant's PC.

Working to eliminate problems

There are some minor drawbacks, but staff members at Computing and Communications are working hard at ensuring that they are addressed. The new system operates on power drawn from the computer network, which is currently being upgraded to connect to Memorial's emergency power infrastructure. In the case of a power outage, the large majority of phones will continue to work. Ms. Power pointed out, “There are a few locations on campus where emergency power is not available and C&C will work with groups in these areas to ensure alternate options for emergency phones during power interruptions are clearly established.”

Computing and Communications is currently bolstering its system and have also built in a number of checks so that these kinds of problems are minimized. C&C is also working with Facilities Management to address the emergency power issues where possible.

“We are aware that some people may be a little uneasy with a new system,” Ms. Power said. “However, other universities and organizations have adopted VoIP, and it's not an experimental technology. We have been evaluating VoIP for five or six years now, and are persuaded it is mature enough for us to start reaping its benefits. We also can leverage the experiences of the early adopters, and we are confident that the new system will be an added value to the campus community.” One thing to be aware of, she added, is that the VoIP system is only on campus where we can ensure the proper network configuration, quality, and security is in place. Any calls that go off campus continue to be routed through our local and long distance phone carriers.

Next steps

The VoIP phones are going to be phased in starting with the offices in the QE II Library, planned to begin late May. After that, the phones will make their way into offices in the Inco Innovation Centre, Spencer Hall, the Business and Education Buildings among others. “Our telecommunications office currently has designated `telecommunications contacts' in each department,” Ms. Power said. “We will work with these people to develop a detailed rollout plan and schedule for each phase.”

Ms. Power noted that many people wonder if they will be getting a new phone and a new number. While the project will replace the Centex phones with VoIP phones, she advises that the internal four-digit dial system that Memorial currently has will not change under the VoIP system, so people will keep the same four digits. Four-digit dialing will continue to work between Centrex numbers and VoIP numbers so internal callers will not notice any change.  C&C will distribute notices through newsline as groups transition to the VoIP system.

During the rollout, C&C will maintain the existing phone numbers for external callers, so these callers will see no change. However, once the transition phases are complete, extensions will be implemented -- one central number for everyone and an extension. The central number will be Memorial's current main number, 737-8000. The extension will be the last four digits of the current number. “For example,” Ms. Power added, “my number, 737-4723, will become 737-8000 ext. 4723.”

Departmental numbers, faxes, and other numbers published in Aliant's white pages phone book will continue to work directly when dialed from outside the university, called “direct inward dial”, or DID.

Essentially, C&C will maintain DID's for everyone until the rollout phases are complete, expected in the Spring of 2007. Extensions will then be implemented for the entire campus on a preset date, that will be advertise several months in advance. This way everyone will have lots of time to prepare for the change and notify all of their external contacts of the change in phone numbers.

C&C will be providing information and client support for the new technologies. On-line FAQ's, user manuals, and tutorials are available. Also, for people who would like additional support training sessions will be scheduled.

More information on the new phone system and on the phased roll out can be found at: www.mun.ca/cc/projects/voip.php