Dartmouth Intros Wireless VoIP

By Vikki Lipset

September 26, 2003

The college continues its pioneering ways in the world of wireless networking with the rollout of softphones and Vocera voice badges.

Dartmouth College may be the smallest of the Ivy League schools, but when it comes to wireless technology, it's a giant.

The college, nestled in the Connecticut River Valley in Hanover, N.H., was one of the first to deploy a campuswide wireless network a few years ago. Now, it's adding voice to the mix.

Beginning Friday, Dartmouth will offer free softphones -- software that allows a user to make and receive phone calls on a PC or PDA -- to incoming freshmen. Calls will be routed over the school's new converged voice and data network, and will be free to students.

The new voice over wireless LAN (VoWLAN) services will be phased in gradually, said Bob Johnson, associate director for telecommunications at Dartmouth. "Nobody has ever rolled this out to this extent before, so we really don't know what the support issues are going to be," he said. "My assumption is that the kids are a lot more computer-savvy than us old folk, and they're going to adapt to the technology very easily, but we just want to make sure that we're prepared to handle it."

The plans are to distribute the softphone clients in rounds of 200, with all 1000 first-year students expected to have the software in about two weeks. Ultimately, the school intends to extend the service to the entire community of 13,000, including faculty and staff.

For the initial rollout, Dartmouth is using Cisco IP Softphones, a Windows-based client. Bellevue, Wash.-based TeleSym is also developing clients for both Pocket PC and Palm handheld devices, as well as for the Mac OS (Dartmouth has long had a devoted community of Mac users; the popular Mac FTP program Fetch was developed there).

The Pocket PC client will be available in two weeks, Johnson said, while the softphone for the Palm OS will be ready by Thanksgiving. The Mac faithful will have to wait until Christmas.

In addition to the softphones, Dartmouth will also offer Wi-Fi phones from Vocera Communications. The Cupertino, Calif.-based startup's wearable badges use speech recognition to allow for hands-free calling; users just say the name of the person they're trying to reach -- no phone numbers required.

That's a huge advantage in a state such as New Hampshire, which has only one area code, said Johnson. "Numbers are very tight in New Hampshire, so it's one way to help us expand our DID (Direct Inward Dial) pool."

The Vocera badges will be available starting Oct. 1 for $15 a month. Unfortunately they're only available in black, though. "The first thing people pointed out to me was that they're all black," said Johnson. "Everybody said, 'Can we get different colors?' " (Green, anyone?)

VoWLAN's competitive edge

Aside from the budgetary motivations of deploying a wireless VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) system, the school saw other advantages, too. "There are obvious cost savings as you move all of your communications onto a single platform," Johnson said, "but it's also a competitive environment. We like to do things that will differentiate the College."

The frigid New England winters were a factor, too. "We felt it would be a real advantage for the kids to be able to communicate with their classmates no matter where they were. Say you're sitting in the library in the middle of January and it's two degrees below. If you have a friend coming over to the library, rather than you having to walk back over and get a paper you forgot, you could call him up and ask him to bring it."

The move to VoIP was closely tied to the school's recent decision not to charge for long-distance phone calls. There were a couple of driving forces involved there, Johnson said. "No. 1 was a true belief here that voice and Ethernet connectivity were like a utility. It just needs to be part of the infrastructure of the college. Coupled with that is the fact that a usage-based charging system costs money, so as soon as you touch a bill you've got to increase your costs."

It turned out that the billing service was actually costing more than the calls. "So it was kind of a no-brainer."

Plus, he said, "in the back of our mind we knew that we wanted to move to this mobile IP .... You can just imagine the billing complexities trying to track who made what call where. It would have gotten to be a mess."

Ultimately, the vision is that "voice will just be another application on the network ... so that no matter where you are, any place, any time, you can have voice communications. It doesn't have to be a telephone anymore."

Monitoring for quality

That vision is shared by a growing number of universities, hospitals and retail stores embracing wireless VoIP, but there are still lingering concerns preventing widespread adoption. Quality of service (QoS) is one.

Yet, Johnson said the voice quality of the softphones is excellent. "On campus, voice quality is pretty much indistinguishable from a telephone call on a legacy phone."

Of course, at the moment, the softphones are only available for desktops and laptops. When the PDA clients are introduced, roaming issues, such as the handoff from one wireless access point (AP) to another, will come into play.

"When you're re-associating, there's going to be some delay and clicking there," Johnson said. "But once it's re-associated the quality is fine."

As with a cell phone, he said, users have to be willing to give up some quality for mobility. "I personally think that you may run into some delays or loss of call quality as you're moving between subnets, but I think it'll be more than made up for by what you're getting in mobility."

He also pointed out that compared with cell phone service, which is notoriously bad in Hanover, the VoIP service is a good deal. "Let's face it, a cell phone is going to cost you 20 plus cents a minute; this is free."

The Vocera badges are also high quality, he said, especially considering they are essentially speakerphones. "The quality is significantly better than [a regular speakerphone]," he said.

The telecommunications department is already using the badges to reach support staff out in the field. Johnson noted that with the badges they can reach technicians in places they wouldn't otherwise be able to call them. For example, "when they're in the basement, where a cell phone wouldn't work, you still have 802.11b coverage and we can reach them."

Johnson said that he expects the quality to improve when the school moves to a new tri-mode (802.11 a/b/g) network in November. In addition to providing more bandwith, he said the school is installing equipment to monitor QoS on the network.

Of course, Dartmouth won't rest there. "The hope is right behind voice is video," said Johnson. The school is rolling out pilots now using 802.11a to stream video. The ability to run video over the wireless network could save the school up to $1 million in upgrades to its aging cable TV system, he said.

In the meantime, the school will be carefully monitoring its voice over Wi-Fi experiment. Courtesy of a grant from Cisco, David Kotz, a computer science professor, as well as professors from the engineering school and staff from Computing Services, will study the impact of the voice traffic on both the wireless and wired networks.

The transition from data communications to voice communications will be a big adjustment for many students, noted Rose Kraemer, a recent Dartmouth graduate. "It isn't a very phone-oriented campus," she said.

Indeed, the school's e-mail system, known as BlitzMail (circa 1988), is an integral part of students' lives. They check it constantly.

"It'll be interesting to see if the upperclassmen adopt it," she said. "The seniors probably won't."

Perhaps a Big Green Vocera badge would sway them to the VoIP side.



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