VoIP at Butler University
Butler University identified weaknesses in the existing campus communication systems. Chief Information Office (CIO) Scott Kincaid’s identified the need to upgrade or replace the Centrex system as Butler student enrollment and administrative data communication needs had outgrown its usefulness. Arguments for the Centrex system were that users found the system reliability to be beneficial. Once employees have a system that meets their current needs, some are reluctant to go embrace the next step to enhancing job capabilities.
The majority of students liked having campus provided email even though 92% had cell phones. Various problems were associated with the existing system but it was not without failure. For no other reason than advances in technology, the current analog system had become outdated and hard to customize. Moving lines was labor intensive with student and administrative shifts. Changes become labor intensive and difficult to perform because not only is the hardware difficult to repair, at a certain point the system will be so antiquated that it won’t be compatible with new vendor technology upgrades outside of Butler.
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A large amount of administrative time was spent reconciling the current billing system each month showing that again unnecessary labor was a hindrance to efficiency. Changes aren’t without risk and administrative staff viewed merging data and voice networks was viewed as risky. A major concern was regarding the voice quality of VoIP technology. The IT department also knew that network security risks were a concern addressing other data network risk concerns post 9/11. An efficient and flexible integrated emergency notification system was required to remedy this concern.
Campus administration also feared virus attacks that commonly affected data networks. Unified communications is a term used to describe a system that integrates call and data communication applications that are interactive and collaborative with real-time and transactional capabilities. Butler hired the Dietrich Lockard Group, a telecommunications-consulting firm, to address the primary issues and needs of the university and to recommend a unified communications solution.
To pinpoint the real needs of the university, Dietrich formed an advisory group comprised of administrative staff from a variety of departments around campus who required a high-level of data usage and accuracy from the system. Those departments were admissions, financial services, student life, facilities management, the libraries, and department faculty. The advisory group and technical staff were taught about VoIP and steps that can be taken to mitigate its risks.
The strategic plan involving integrating these five goals: improve student communications, improve handling of callers, leverage new services to assist staff and improve training on these systems, remain competitive with other institutions regarding the level of student services offered, and to provide more immediate access to key Butler personnel. The options presented to Butler were to continue with the existing systems and make no changes. Many people find the system reliable. Another solutions would be to continue upgrading the existing system and equipment.
Although expensive, IT staff was familiar with the system and, while difficult, upgrades were possible – at least in the near future. Along that line of thinking, an alternative is to continue with the existing system and integrate and independent VoIP for a few selected offices. This would allow Butler to make a small-scale technology change without compromising the entire communications network. The last and most expensive option is to acquire a new in-house PBX system for unified communications.
The concern with this option is if Butler were to invest in a new PBX system would it have a limited life? With Dietrich’s guidance, Butler drafted an RFP and put the project out for bid. Vendor selection would be based on the an analysis of the variables effecting choices, the vendor’s ability meet the university’s needs as defined in the RFP, cost, availability of local support once the network was installed, and the vendor’s experience with new VoIP and other enterprise systems.
A vendor was selected and a very aggressive implementation schedule was initiated. Staff and students found the changeover simple and the pilot program made training fun. The IT department described the changeover as the “week from hell”. Phone system registration was labor intensive when each needed to be registered manually. Other problems were malfunctioning equipment, the 2,000 additional phone numbers provided by SBC came up missing and required a 45-day window to fix the problem and food service and the bookstore didn’t have Ethernet wiring.
The biggest problem was that department safety alarm wiring was not compatible with new VoIP and the old system needed to be recreated to make them work. My concern with the alarm system was based on 1970’s technology and should have been updated. I would consider the upgrade to be a wise decision on Butler’s choice. Analog systems are antiquated and had they not made the change now, it may have been more costly in the future. Technology integration with outside source such as telecommunications companies and software support for financial and accounting systems.
Any department that required data sharing and collaboration, mixed media messaging was at an operational risk had the change-over not been implemented. By converging systems for a unified communication solution, Butler had taken the proactive approach. It wasn’t without unanticipated costs – a new IT staff position was created, and the unforeseen costs to the department alarm system and Ethernet cabling to food services and the bookstore were substantial. What Butler gained was collaborative applications, improved communications and convenience.
Having a different call centers around campus, Butler could now examine call records and identify inefficacies within a specific area. The economy of improving these areas will be cost and improved university services. I believe Butler made the correct choice in moving forward with a new system. The only fault I found was in their not revamping the existing alarm system. The problems experienced during the changeover were minimal and solvable without reconstructing the plan. Again, a solid strategic and farsighted plan.