This article was published in CAUSE/EFFECT journal, Volume 22 Number 4 1999. The copyright is shared by EDUCAUSE and the author. See http://www.educause.edu/copyright for additional copyright information.
A Framework for Tracking Developments in Voice over IP
by E. Michael Staman
The emergence of voice applications over packet-switched networks (VoIP) as net- working moves to a common Internet protocol foundation is of more than passing interest to higher education. We are probably at the very beginning of VoIP and some time in advance of a replacement of the public-switched telephone network (PSTN). A number of universities have undertaken a variety of initiatives that have involved experimenting, planning, and deploying the technology.
During EDUCAUSE ’99 there were two important events in this area--a “current issues” roundtable discussion on the topic and the first meeting of the VoIP working group of EDUCAUSE’s Net@EDU program. From these we see the beginnings of a framework for discussion about VoIP within the higher education community and the foundations for a collaborative effort at the national level. This article contains a brief summary of the discussions that took place during the roundtable and provides readers with a mechanism to obtain additional information and track the evolution of VoIP via happenings within Net@EDU.
The roundtable discussion--titled “Voice over IP: Hype vs. Reality”--identified a list of questions that surface when one actually contemplates deploying production VoIP services, a list that tends to grow rapidly. Having such a list is instructive in its own right. Examples of questions include:
- Is the issue voice services or a larger set of campus applications and networking issues?
- What about production voice issues such as emergency telephone services, billing and record keeping, moves/adds/changes, and “five-nines” reliability?
- Build vs. buy--is outsourcing an option?
- Should campuses invest today or wait for market forces to bring prices down tomorrow?
- Are there several “prototypical” solutions for campuses available today?
- How much money is involved, and how is it currently spent?
- If one had to choose between a PBX and a VoIP solution today, what would be the best choice?
- What factors should influence this choice?
At a minimal level of effort, chief information officers (CIOs) should be thinking about four issues: costs and cost savings, services, what to do today, and tracking the future.
Costs and cost savings
Costs of handsets continue to drop, from figures as high as $1,000 a year ago to half of that today. As the commodity market place develops, we should anticipate factors coming into play similar to those that impacted price in virtually every other area of information technology, so the costs for handsets should not be a major factor in planning within the next few years.
Interestingly, one of the early factors in thinking about VoIP, savings in per-minute costs for local and long distance telephone calls, appears to be becoming mitigated already by market forces as the price of long distance services continues to decline. So deploying voice over IP on a campus simply to leverage changing market conditions is probably not a wise strategy at the moment with market conditions changing so rapidly and in potentially unpredictable ways.
However, savings can accrue in other ways. Convergence should become a major factor, and the potential for both cost savings and service improvements appears real. Planning for convergence means planning for consolidated finances; single network strategies; integrated staffing, service, and support opportunities; and potential new ways to leverage technical training, staff time, campuswide directory services, and combined facilities. Synergies evolving from convergence may accrue as highly attractive weighting factors in a planning process. This is especially true if one considers ways in which new approaches to customer service can be inserted into the equation.
Of no surprise, production services issues need to be prominent in our thinking. Everyone knows about emergency 911 services and the question of how to provide them if the campus network is down for some reason. Equally at issue is the fact that higher education has not generally deployed data networks with the same “five nines” reliability expected of the voice network. At the moment we would find little evidence of the pervasive philosophy (and associated costs) of redundancy, uninterruptible power, and hardened physical security that has driven the deployment of voice services.
Thinking about the services issue generates an additional set of questions that will need to be incorporated into discussions about new strategies for voice services:
- How do we manage moves, new service installations, and a telephone database?
- Should we bill for voice or simply charge ourselves for total capacity into our campuses?
- How do we incorporate both intracampus voice services and the ability for a student to call the local pizza place?
- How much do we spend today and for what?
- Are the cost, quality, and services advantages sufficient to convince us to move to production?
What to do today
So, is VoIP hype or reality, and what should CIOs be doing today? Voice over IP is not all hype, even today. Neither should it be considered reality, either today or for the next several years. In some cases real applications exist today, and in every case institutions will be remiss if they do not consider VoIP at every step of the evolution of their infrastructure from this point on.
There are several things which seem prudent to do. The depth of the analyses implied by the action list below depends upon whether (a) the question is whether to replace a PBX immediately, (b) deploying converged services will be a reality as soon as possible and the question is when to do so, or (c) deploying converged services will be well into the future and the need is to begin developing a knowledge base on campus in order to have useful discussions.
1. Prepare an analysis of how money flows in support of voice and data services today.
2. Be sure to include in the planning process people on campus who understand legacy voice services to ensure consideration of issues from the perspective of ACUTA (Association of Telecommunications Professionals) members.
3. Construct a new model or models for converged services, taking into consideration both how services change and sustainable financial models to pay for them. (If an institution wants to adopt the technology relatively early in its life cycle, an assumption that voice over IP will evolve to production status rapidly, within the next 12 months for example, is probably a safe way to plan for a 12-24 month implementation period.)
4. Find a way to track developments in the VoIP arena.
Tracking the future
Net@EDU intends to maintain an active focus on issues of policy for networking and telecommunications on behalf of its members. In the process, it intends to enable and support its members to lead in the development and deployment of advanced technologies and emerging practices that will have substantial impact on the transformation of higher education. One strategy to accomplish these goals will be through a small number of member-driven projects, and Net@EDU has begun such efforts in the voice/data networking arena via the VoIP working group. This working group has as its mission statement:
To closely track technology developments, industry products and prices, business models, government and campus policy issues, and the latest projections.
To benchmark with communications leaders outside higher education.
To mount a variety of national scale test-bed projects that check performance across both the Internet and advanced networks.
A call for participation was issued during the summer of 1999, and the first “formal” activity of the working group was at EDUCAUSE ’99. Five subgroups have been formed:
1. Tracking and understanding technology developments
2. Tracking and understanding industry products, prices, and projections
3. Developing linkages with related activities such as those of state networks, gigaPoPs, Internet2, and other entities
4. Tracking and reporting on best practices, good projects, and early examples of success
5. Deploying test-bed and interoperability projects
These subgroups have just begun their work, with initial reports presented at EDUCAUSE ’99. Net@EDU believes that these working groups will create a framework for discussions throughout the higher education community about voice over data networking. Institutions with a need to understand and be engaged in the deployment of next generation networking solutions should seriously consider membership in Net@EDU and involvement in one or more of its working groups. Information on Net@EDU and its next annual meeting in Tempe, Arizona, can be found at http://www.educause.edu/netatedu/.
E. Michael Staman (email@example.com) holds the Peyton Anderson Chair in Information Technology at Macon State College. The chair, supported by the Anderson Endowment, is part of Georgia’s Eminent Scholars Program and is one of 39 such positions throughout the University System of Georgia.
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