Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Dartmouth Leads the Way (Yet Again), or the Coming of Age of VoIP

A New Kind of Revolution in the Dorms of Dartmouth

Perhaps because of its geographic remoteness, Dartmouth College in the small town of Hanover, N.H., has long been willing to try novel means of communication.
The college introduced e-mail messaging to campus in the 1980's, well ahead of most other higher educational institutions. And in 2001, it was one of the first colleges to install a campuswide wireless data network.
Now, the college is venturing into the world of "voice over Internet protocol," also known as VoIP, which essentially turns a computer into a telephone.
This week, as classes begin, the 1,000 students entering the class of 2007 will be given the option of downloading software, generically known as softphones, onto Windows-based computers.


Voice over Internet protocol is not new. But running so much voice over a wireless data network is.
"As far as I know, no one has done a wireless voice-over-I.P. network this large before," said David Kotz, a computer science professor at Dartmouth.
The network is being phased in across the entire campus with plans to reach 13,000 people, including faculty and staff.


The roll out of voice over Internet protocol is closely coupled with Dartmouth's recent decision to stop charging students, faculty and staff for long-distance phone calls. The college made that decision when administrators discovered that the billing function was costing more than the calls themselves.
"One wouldn't be possible without the other," Mr. Johnson said. "Imagine the complexities of trying to track down who made what call when on a large, mobile campus voice-over-I.P. network."

Disclaimer: I went to Dartmouth, so I can't make any pretence at objectivity, but it seems to me that where IT innovation is concerned, the school has long been ahead of certain other, more famous institutions the world at large has long regarded as being pace-setters of some sort. From the days when John Kemeny invented Basic (contrary to Microsoft Encarta's claims on behalf of Bill Gates), to the early 1990s, when computer ownership was mandatory for all incoming freshmen and "blitzing" (emailing) was a more common phenomenon than telephone usage, Dartmouth has been very much a computer-oriented place, and I'm glad to see that the old willingness to embrace the new with enthusiasm remains in place.

Going beyond the parochial musings of a proud alumnus for a second, I think what is most important in this story is the statement that "administrators discovered that the billing function was costing more than the calls themselves." This says something truly profound about the nature of the telecommunications business today. Telecoms operators throughout the world have been reluctant to acknowledge the fact that the days of metered traffic are numbered, but this really helps to put the inevitable shift firmly before the public eye. If cable companies and telecoms providers can offer flat rate broadband services, there is simply no good reason not to extend the paradigm to the offering of all-you-can-eat voice service - other than a desire to protect one's revenues.