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Business Officer Magazine

Everywhere a Cell Phone

As landlines lose favor, coordinate cellular services to reduce costs and connect students to all things on campus.

By Douglas Vaira

Landlines are all but extinct as far as the students at Providence College, Rhode Island, are concerned, says Carmine Piscopo, telecommunications manager. “What I hear at ACUTA events,” says Piscopo, who serves as president of the Association for Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education, “is that most campuses still provide dial tone to residence hall rooms and encourage students to bring their own analog phones and plug them in, mainly for emergencies and liability concerns. But our experience,” he says, “is that only about 5 percent [of students] actually do that. This generation is mobile and proud of it.”

This migration to mobility means that institutions are steadily losing a decades-old cash cow—the reselling of long-distance minutes to students. Consequently, they are scrambling to eliminate the overhead cost of supporting expensive landlines while looking to create a new revenue source via a contemporary and convenient service that students value. “We have 14,000 landlines,” says Fred Siff, chief information officer at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio. “It’s a product people don’t want anymore. They want cell phones. Across the country, managers of residential life are saying, ‘Students don’t want to pay for landlines, so we’re going to rip them out of our dorms.’”

The trend has created something of a financial dilemma—and a unique opportunity—for colleges and universities. “This is not a problem,” maintains Siff. “It’s a change in technology. It’s a new technology, but it’s one that everyone is using. We’re all going to have to deal with it.”

A New Connection

Deal with it is exactly what several colleges and universities across the country have done. In the process, many have stepped bravely into a new world of wireless communication, delivering state-of-the-art applications via cell phone networks and fostering a new connectivity with students.

Karen L. Pennington, vice president of student development and campus life at New Jersey’s Montclair State University (MSU), says that her institution’s use of landlines has been steadily eroding for years, and at this point, they are virtually unused. “Even to call students in the same residence building, students will use their cell phones,” she says.

E-mail is also in danger of becoming a casualty of today’s everywhere-a-cell-phone phenomenon. With MSU students text messaging and, hence, rarely reading university e-mails, Pennington admits that the institution needed a new way of communicating with students. “Rather than having every student get a laptop, we went the cell phone route,” says Pennington.

In devising a program to provide students with cell phones and cellular services, MSU partnered with Sprint and Rave Wireless, telecommunications firms that provide campus-specific mobile applications and services. Each student receives a phone and can choose from different levels of service. Students pay $186 for a semester of service, which includes 400 minutes per month. While MSU so far has rolled out service as a mandatory program only to its freshman class, the program will become a requirement for all incoming students so that eventually all are included.

The value proposition of working with institutions of higher education is obvious for service providers: access to the 18- to 24-year-old market—in other words, the jackpot. At MSU, Sprint installed a number of new cell towers on campus. The ubiquitous coverage was critical going into the partnership, contends Pennington. “[Sprint was] very forward thinking in seeing the future potential of this program.” To develop applications that would be delivered via their cell phones, a group of 100 MSU students worked with the technicians at Rave, telling the company what they wanted.

Phone Functionality

By far, the feature most popular among MSU parents is Rave Guardian, which transforms students’ GPS-enabled phones into personal safety devices. Basically it works this way: If a student thinks that he or she might be in a potentially dangerous situation, such as walking across campus alone late at night, the student can set an alarm on his or her phone, sending an alert to campus police. Using a campuswide map, security personnel can track the progress of the student (via a red dot on a monitor) based on the destination that the student indicates. Once the student arrives safely, he or she can disable the alarm. Students like the service because it’s up to them to activate the alarm, says Pennington. “They have a sense of security,” she says, “but no one else needs to know the alarm is set.”

Among other phone features popular with MSU students are cafeteria menus and a shuttle-bus tracker, which allows students to monitor the status of the campus shuttle fleet. That’s an especially nice feature during chilly New Jersey winters, adds Pennington. Likewise, course management applications allow students to check class syllabuses, acquire exam grades, and communicate via text messages with professors.

Raju Rishi, Rave Wireless’s cofounder and chief operating officer, notes that cell phones and the rich variety of applications available “have created a social fabric among groups.” One must look no further than MSU’s campus to see evidence of that.

Other third-party vendor applications, such as Omnilert’s e2Campus mass notification system, are allowing institutions to communicate important information to students, faculty, and staff. Whether they’re on campus or miles away, recipients receive updates on everything from school closings and public safety alerts to sports scores and upcoming events. According to Omnilert President Ara Bagdasarian, administrators are drawn to tools like e2Campus because of their ease of use: Type a message, select a recipient group, and press a button. Within seconds, the message is blasted to thousands of people via their chosen method of communication, whether text message, Blackberry, webfeed, or e-mail. Text messaging is the way most students want to communicate today, contends Bagdasarian. “E-mail,” he says, “has become a secondary communication tool.”

Campus-Created Solutions

Sell Service

There is little question that institutions of higher education represent a lucrative market for cellular service providers. Still, it may be a bit startling to realize that students—and more often, parents—shell out nearly $400 million on cellular services annually. The following statistics from an annual telecommunications study published by Student Monitor shed light on who’s doing the talking on college campuses.

  • Ninety-one percent (or 5.5 million) of college and university students in the United States own cell phones.
  • The average student has had cell service for more than three years, and has experimented with 1.5 cell providers. In addition, 13 percent say that they are likely to switch providers during the next 12 months.
  • When asked to identify the most important factor in choosing a cell provider, students overwhelmingly place “cost of minutes/airtime” atop the list.
  • “Keep in touch” and “convenience” are the primary reasons students own cell phones (31 percent and 25 percent, respectively).
  • The average student cell phone owner spends just shy of $70 a month for service, with female students spending slightly more than their male counterparts.
  • When it comes to footing the bill, 58 percent of parents (up from 42 percent last year) and 32 percent of students (down from 42 percent last year) are most likely to pay a student’s monthly cell costs.
  • For the millions of students with cell service, Verizon (33 percent) is the leading cell provider; followed by Cingular, with 24 percent; and Sprint/Nextel and T-Mobile, which each claim 17 percent of the market.
  • More than 80 percent of students acquired their first cell phone before starting college.

Source: Student Monitor, LLC, “Spring 2006 Telecom Study,”

While many institutions have turned to partners to develop cell phone applications, the University of Cincinnati concentrated on negotiating low cell phone rates while creating customized wireless resources.

According to Fred Siff, students, not administrators, are driving cell phone adoption on his campus. Nearly three years ago, a new president of student government came to Siff’s office with an information technology agenda. High on that priority list was the question of whether the university could negotiate decent cell phone rates for students. Recalls Siff: “The thought occurred to both of us that we have 35,000 students, every one of them has a cell phone, none is ours, none is supported by the institution, and they’re all at different rates and different coverage. Is that the environment we want?” From this realization was born the UC Mobile program, a partnership with Cincinnati Bell that allowed the university to offer a UC-branded “Bearcat” cell phone with unlimited minutes, text-messaging capabilities, and five-digit campus dialing—among other features—to 4,000 incoming freshman in 2006.

Students weren’t the only ones to give Siff an earful prior to the program’s inception and launch. Department chairs were asking why they were stuck footing the monthly bills for faculty landlines they didn’t use. “Faculty don’t sit in their offices,” says Siff. “They’re perfect candidates for cell phones. Students have no offices; they’re mobile workers. So, our take is, the institution has a certain role in providing that connectivity environment and meeting [faculty and student] requirements.”

The biggest problem upon releasing the UC Mobile program was how to deal with incoming students who already had contracts in place for existing cell service, says Siff. The university has experimented with an automatic rollover to the UC Mobile program of current contracts as they expire. “We can’t afford to buy out the (existing) contracts,” says Siff. “What we have to do is provide a better alternative [that users] are eager to move to as soon as they can dump the old phone.”

Pick an Edge

As Siff sees it, when it comes to confronting this new wave of wireless technology, there’s leading edge, bleeding edge, and trailing edge. He compares adoption of wireless tools to the early days of the personal computer, with many takes on the “right” solution. “This is the same kind of chaotic environment,” says Siff. “There are no best practices yet; I think we’re all trying to develop something that will work.”

Indiana’s University of Notre Dame, South Bend, for instance, has built a carrier-neutral infrastructure so that different cell carriers can come to campus and provide services. St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, has essentially created its own phone company, competing with other local providers to offer traditional services.

Perhaps one of the most innovative approaches is the voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP) solution being pioneered at Georgia Gwinnett College, Lawrenceville, a public four-year liberal arts institution created by the board of regents of the University System of Georgia, Athens. A principal goal in creating the new college, chartered in 2005, is to develop forward-looking techniques for higher education, including a focus on providing portable technology solutions. With the college’s hybrid VoIP solution—which uses a combination of proprietary and open source technology—callers can use the Internet rather than traditional circuits to complete the transmission of phone calls.

Because the college is new and nimble, decision makers were able to analyze whether it made sense to install a traditional landline infrastructure. With the VoIP system, new functionality can continually be added: the ability to route calls easily, provide access from the Web, and send voice mail to e-mail and cell phones, for instance. “The decision basically came down to cost,” says Lonnie Harvel, Georgia Gwinnett’s chief information officer and vice president of educational technology. “From that standpoint, there was no resistance from our vice president of finance. By installing the VoIP system, we avoided the financial commitment we would have had to make with a landline system.”

Yet, as many administrators will caution, institutions must be mindful of certain safety issues and vulnerabilities. For instance, when a student places a 911 call from a landline phone, police can immediately trace the call. Cell phones don’t offer that assurance; hence, callers must do their homework as to whether dialing the local operator or identifying the direct number to a particular emergency response team’s location might be a better option. In the case of VoIP, if a building loses power, the technology may go down with it, explains Harvel. To resolve this issue for his campus, the college has a block of landline numbers in place that are functional but much less expensive than purchasing a comprehensive campuswide infrastructure.

Lose the Lines

Conversation Starter
What kinds of campuswide communication tools is your institution discussing? Who is involved in the conversation, and how soon do you expect to implement something new? E-mail:

In addition to implementing the VoIP solution, Harvel selected the Rave platform to provide wireless applications for Georgia Gwinnett College, a commuter campus, that extend the campus community to students’ physical locations. Harvel also likes that students can set up their own communication profiles and choose whether they want to receive text messages, webfeeds, voice messages, or some combination of options. Although Georgia Gwinnett College does not currently require all students to have cell phones, that may change within the next several years, says Harvel.

At MSU, Pennington predicts that as faculty and staff get younger, landlines on her campus may go away altogether. So where do institution leaders see the future of cell phones and wireless services heading? Pennington has her eyes set on trends in Europe and Asia, where citizens use their cell phones like credit cards at vending machines: Plug in your code and get your product. That technology, she says, could be used at bookstores and other campus facilities. Considering the warp-speed proliferation and acceptance of cell phones on campuses across the country, that seems a good call.

DOUGLAS VAIRA, Charles Town, West Virginia, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.