Feature Story

Dartmouth Converges Voice onto Wireless Data Network using Cisco Infrastructure and IP SoftPhones

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With Free Local and Long-Distance Calls from Anywhere on Campus, Students Eagerly Sign Up

October 29, 2003

By Stacy Williams, News@Cisco

Dartmouth College hopes that its students will soon be able to watch the national news, access the Internet and make calls to friends—all from anywhere on campus using a computer, PDA or other device over a single wireless network. Long known for its willingness to use advanced means of communication, Dartmouth has established a vision for a campus-wide converged network capable of carrying voice, video and data wirelessly.

The university came one step closer to realizing its vision in late September 2003, when the first 200 students were allowed to download Cisco IP SoftPhones onto their Windows-based computers. Using a Cisco IP SoftPhone with a headset, students can make local or long-distance telephone calls free over the campus wireless network.

Eventually, the school plans to phase in the mobile telephone service to the entire student body, faculty and staff of 13,000. Over the next six months, softphones will be available for Apple computers as well as Palm and Pocket PC handheld devices.

Dartmouth students using Cisco IP SoftPhones are assigned a traditional seven-digit phone number. The software appears on the screen as a phone with a dial pad. Students dial by clicking the numbers on the pad. Calls are routed over the school's new converged voice and data network, based on Cisco CallManager Business Communications software and the Cisco AVVID architecture.

According to Bob Johnson, director of telecom and network services for Dartmouth College, the voice quality of the Cisco IP SoftPhones is "indistinguishable" from a telephone call on a legacy phone. "In 2002, we established a solid foundation for convergence and high quality of service by upgrading our network to all Cisco gear," says Johnson. "We felt the time was right to move toward a packet-based network for all of our voice, data and eventually video requirements."

Dartmouth won't replace its traditional wired phones and PBX right away. Instead, the Cisco wireless network, Cisco IP SoftPhones, and Cisco IP Phones will coexist with the legacy equipment temporarily to ensure that Dartmouth can maximize its return on investment (ROI).

The college's innovations in the area of communications are not limited to the physical campus itself. Dartmouth has also implemented Cisco VPN 3030 Concentrators that allow traveling faculty and staff to use their Cisco IP SoftPhones to tap into Dartmouth's wireless IP phone network to make free long-distance calls from hotels or other off-campus locations. "Voice calls should be a critical utility that is free to Dartmouth students, faculty and staff," says Johnson. "Working with Cisco, we are rapidly making our vision of utility telecommunications a reality."

To allow the large-scale acquisition and rollout of Cisco IP SoftPhones, Cisco Systems Capital established a flexible lease package that allowed Dartmouth to acquire the technology and at the same time meet tight budgetary requirements. In addition, Dartmouth is working with Cisco Channel Partner Network Information Systems to manage the large-scale deployment.

The college expects long-term ROI from its Cisco solution. The rollout of wireless IP Telephony goes hand in hand with the college's recent decision to stop charging students, faculty and staff for long-distance phone calls. By providing long-distance phone service free, Dartmouth avoids dealing with the complexities and cost of call billing.

"When administrators discovered that the billing function was costing more than the calls themselves, it was an easy decision to stop billing for calls," explains Johnson. "Overall, we anticipate savings of up to $300,000 per year in administrative costs and network maintenance using the new Cisco solution."

Response has been tremendous. Students snatched up the first 200 Cisco IP SoftPhones in a "first come, first served" email raffle within the first two hours. Within two weeks from the initial offering of Cisco IP SoftPhones, Dartmouth plans to have the software in the hands of 1,000 students.

Because Dartmouth is unique in running such high volumes of voice over a wireless data network, the new phone system will be closely monitored. Courtesy of a grant from Cisco, computer science and engineering departments will study the impact of the voice traffic on both wireless and wired networks as well as usage patterns.

Results of the study will be pivotal to the college's next goal: offering high-quality video over its wireless IP network. "Like most colleges, we are saddled with an aging cable TV infrastructure," says Johnson. "We want to converge it onto our wireless data network to provide streaming video."

Dartmouth will be running pilots of streaming video over the Cisco network in Fall 2004. "Imagine a student sitting on a bed in a dorm—without wires—working on the Internet and watching CNN in the corner of the screen, and then calling a friend about what's on TV," says Johnson. "We just need to determine how much bandwidth it's going to take."

Stacy Williams is a freelance journalist based in Dutch John, UT.