Colleges, Universities Are Looking Before Taking VoIP Leap

Colleges, Universities Are Looking Before Taking VoIP Leap

America’s colleges and universities, like businesses of all sizes, are dipping their toes into the VoIP waters – and finding them muddied by what the scholastic community thinks is too much hype by Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) vendors. As such, they’re looking into every nook and cranny before making a decision, up to and including regulatory strictures.

According to a survey by the Association for Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education (ACUTA), more than 90 percent of higher- education communications-technology professionals say VoIP equipment makers are pushing too hard. Leaving nothing to the imagination, ACUTA says “92 percent of respondents think vendors are pumping out hot air when it comes to VoIP.”

And perhaps the most startling finding of the survey? The nation’s schools don’t believe VoIP is going to save them money. Well, some do, according to the survey – a tiny 19 percent. That, of course, is in startling contrast to the marketing message the VoIP industry is widely attempting to foist off on the American populace.

The ACUTA findings were radical enough for Telecom Policy Report sister e-letter Broadband Business Forecast to ask Jeri Semer (photo, left) , executive director, to share them with us – the full 47 pages of results are generally available only to paying members of ACUTA or to those who choose to buy them.

While the vast majority of ACUTA members who responded to the survey showed a healthy skepticism of the claims being made by VoIP vendors, that doesn’t mean the technology isn’t a hot topic on America’s campuses, Semer tells us. “A good percentage (of ACUTA members) responded” to the survey, she says. The total was about 36 percent of the 770 institutions of higher learning that belong to ACUTA, she adds, and the high percentage is an indication “that they are seriously looking at the benefits of VoIP for their campuses. They are really doing a lot of due diligence, learning about the technology.”

That’s because, while there is skepticism, the survey shows communications professionals at the nation’s colleges and universities do feel VoIP “does have benefits…it’s a good way of connecting a remote building…it’s a good way of doing unified messaging, of managing voice mail, of video conferencing.”

Indeed, Semer tells us, the survey shows that “actually, a lot of the schools are trying VoIP. Sixty-five percent of the colleges and universities that responded to the survey are using VoIP on their campus. That’s a very positive statistic that’s indicative that colleges and universities are on the cutting edge of technology.”

But, she cautions, while the survey shows VoIP “has a lot of good applications on campuses, the campuses are not rushing to implement it campus- wide because it is an expensive technology.” So far, the use of VoIP accounts for only a fraction of the calls made these days from colleges. Only 9 percent of the schools said that more than 25 percent of their call minutes are over VoIP lines, while only 6 percent reported more than 50 percent.

The reason for that, Semer continues, is because VoIP requires a “retooling of basic network infrastructure.” Indeed, only 40 percent of those polled by ACUTA said they figure their total cost of communications will decrease if they move to VoIP versus 54 percent who said that was unlikely.

An important point to note is that the schools are not looking at the per-minute cost of making calls, which is the big selling point of consumer VoIP, but isn’t the issue ACUTA was surveying. “Our members would typically not talk to a Vonage or a Skype,” Semer explains. Rather, they are talking to hardware and software suppliers, and worrying about communications infrastructure costs for campuses where the number of phone lines typically ranges anywhere from 4,000 lines up to 25,000 or more.

Healthy Skepticism

And based on the survey, she says, “they are skeptical about the vendor claims.” Still, “they do listen to the vendors and learn from them. They value what they have to say,” she adds. “Then they kind of take it with a grain of salt and do their own pilot.”

The schools are looking nearly the same things as any company or individual seeks from VoIP – starting with E911 connection. One thing the survey shows is that “the E911 issue is a major concern for colleges,” Semer says (BBF notes that this interview was done just days before the tragic events at Virginia Tech, and there were indication that VoIP E911 service problems were involved).

Next, the schools are looking for the same “five nines” level of reliability that traditional phone service – plain old telephone services or POTS – offers. “Keeping the dial tone up as close to 100 percent of the time as possible is important,” Semer says and, with the vast majority of America’s schools still using POTS, “now the campuses pretty much have 100-percent reliability.”

With VoIP, she continues, “you don’t have that, and right now our campuses have to be careful about that.”

End Of Life

Still, when all is said and done, there are some schools that already have or are planning to jump into extensive VoIP deployments, but that’s not because of their love (or hate) of VoIP. Rather, it’s more a pragmatic issue. “The diminishing availability of traditional phone products in the marketplace is a major factor in VoIP deployment,” ACUTA says in its analysis of the survey. “I though it was very interesting that when colleges and universities are planning to implement VoIP on a wider scale, it seems to be because of the end of life of their existing systems – when vendors stop manufacturing and supporting them,” Semer concludes.

What Vendors Need To Consider

Telecom Policy Report and Broadband Business Forecast agree that any VoIP hardware or software vendor that doesn’t buy a copy of the ACUTA report should have its marketing head examined.

It’s not just a question of the higher-education market – although, just by itself, higher education is an attractive niche market. Rather, the attitudes of those in charge of communications at the nation’s post-secondary schools are an excellent reflection, we think, of their peers in business as well.

And we’re not talking about small business here. These are massive telecom installations, of the same type that medium to large businesses are considering. That means there are valuable lessons to be learned for the broadband-based telephony business, i.e., VoIP.

We also note that communications experts at the nation’s colleges and universities showed a high level of concern about security issues: 43 percent cited viruses and denial of service attacks as a major concern, and another 43 percent see those two events as a minor concern. Only 29 percent of the college administrators “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed that it will be easy to overcome VoIP security concerns.

We fully agrees with the concern shown by college administrators by those results. Its editors have been preaching for years now that VoIP requires that same level of concern for security as does any other form of IP communications. Indeed, 78 percent of the schools surveyed said security issues were a major or minor concern delaying their deployment of VoIP. And again, we suggest that VoIP hardware and software vendors read this report – because this is where it’s at, guys. This is what the customers are demanding to know about – and they want real answers, not the silly-faced grins we typically get from VoIP vendors when we ask about security issues.

[Copyright 2006 Access Intelligence, LLC. All rights reserved.]

COPYRIGHT 2007 Access Intelligence, LLC

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