Computer phones to be tried
By Colleen MacPherson
If it sits on a desk like a telephone, can be dialed like a telephone and rings like a telephone, but can do most everything a computer can do, is it still a telephone?
Of course it is, according to Rick Bunt, Associate Vice-President Information and Communications Technology. But it's a telephone with some extra capabilities made possible by the convergence of telephone and data network technology that will be put to the test in the new Kinesiology Building.
Bunt explained that what is called the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) project is a joint venture between Telephone Services and Information Technology Services (ITS) on campus to assess the new technology. The August opening of the Kinesiology Building and a major equipment donation by Cisco Systems, a supplier to the USR-net project, created "an opportunity to determine the interest of real users".
In a nutshell, the technology involves treating voice signals like data that can be transmitted over IP networks rather than traditional phone lines. To understand the differences between the two systems, Bunt said it helps to think about data networks as being like Canada Post.
"If I want to send a letter to Nova Scotia, I write the address on the envelope and drop it in the letterbox. That letter then goes to the local post office and they might send it to the downtown post office. It's then sent on to Toronto and from there to Halifax where it'll get forwarded to Dalhousie University and finally to the person whose name is on the envelope. The address guides it, telling people where to send the envelope. Data networks use routers instead of people to direct the packets of data."
In comparison, the traditional telephone system works more like a simplified rail network, he said. "To go from here to Halifax, you flip switches along the way and make one long line. A circuit is built for each call and it persists for the length of the call."
To bring the two systems together, Cisco is donating to the University "the data equivalent of a giant telephone switch and we'll interface that with our SaskTel equipment to create 150 IP phones for Kinesiology."
Bunt pointed out that were the University to purchase the equipment included in the donation, the cost would be well over $100,000, creating "an economic barrier to this experiment".
IP phones, which are already in use at the Canadian Light Source synchrotron, feature a small screen and can serve as a regular telephone but can also, for example, leave attachments on voice mail, send images or do video conferences. The screen can also display, for example, the weather if that's what the user wants or needs, he said. The IP phone network creates easy access to other services as well. Bunt said it would be possible to find someone's phone number in the University's on-line directory and simply click on it to dial. Users could eventually talk through their computers with handsets used only for privacy when needed, he said.
And to move the phone, it's a simple matter of unplugging from the network in one spot and reconnecting in another, just like a computer.
The technology is of interest to administrators because both voice and data services can be provided on one network for potential cost savings, "but there are things we don't know" like how reliable the technology is, and whether the University's existing network can handle the traffic, said Bunt. The answers will come once the VoIP project is underway "and maybe in six months we'll say that the campus isn't ready for this, that the technology is premature, or that we're going to set up another project. We're not committing to doing anything else except this one building".
Bunt said the College of Kinesiology is a willing participant in the project and, because of the Cisco donation, will pay no more for the 150 IP phones than for regular phones. He then admitted there will be 151 phones installed "because I want one and I'm prepared to pay for my own. Actually, we're installing 152 because Paul Becker (Associate Vice President Facilities Management) wants one too."