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March 17, 2016

Tech Corner: 21st telephony

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From Bell’s “talking telegraph” to 21st-century telephony

The 1893 Report of the Chancellor of the Western University of Pennsylvania (the forerunner of the University) itemized income and expenditures for the fiscal year. According to the report, the annual cost for the University’s telephone service in 1893 was $84 — or a little over $2,000 in 2015 dollars. Could that 19th-century University community have imagined a voice network system costing more than $1 million a year?

Today, Pitt’s voice network handles an average of 30,000 internal-external connected calls daily on the Pittsburgh campus alone.

The University has an advanced system that has been regularly maintained and upgraded to protect this significant infrastructure investment. Approximately 20,000 telephones are connected to the dedicated voice network, which began as copper wires connecting point A to point B. Of the phones connected to this network, roughly a quarter are digital, while the rest are analog. Close to half of the people at Pitt who use voice mail are using CSSD’s voicemail-to-email service.

Next-generation telephony
How often do you text or Skype? And how often do you make phone calls?

When you’re calling someone, are you talking over a cellphone (your own or one provided to you by your department), a desktop phone or your desktop computer?

If copper wire and desktop phones are part of the recent generation of telephony, what marks next-generation telephony? CSSD is surveying members of the University community to find out what people actually need now for voice communications. Recognizing that many people are more mobile than ever, and that many expect to become increasingly mobile in their approach to their professional lives, we want to be able to leverage the mobility factor in our communications offerings.

We are looking for input on what people in the Pitt community want and what they need so that we can meet those needs — and those wants — in the most cost-effective way possible. In many cases, institutions of our size and complexity have found that so-called “next generation telephony” provides better services at a lower cost.

Some institutions have moved to an IP model, for instance, running both voice and data systems on a single network. In that case, rather than running Pitt’s telephone service over the existing dedicated voice network, service here would be provided using PittNet.

Voice over IP (VOIP) has proven itself to be as stable and reliable as existing voice networks — and can provide more advanced features and more options. Consideration of an IP model also would allow us to explore the possibility of moving the University’s telephony to a cloud-based approach, which can provide the potential for increased flexibility in applying resources and in adopting new services quickly.

Through a careful review of the survey responses, we will be able to gauge whether Pitt faculty and staff would benefit from the implementation of a “unified communications” system.

Unified communications
The purpose of a unified communications approach is to provide technology that unifies voice, data and business applications. It works by allowing users to access and utilize communications regardless of their location and regardless of the type of device being used.

Unified communications can make it easier to communicate and collaborate by unifying the University’s telephone services with other methods of communication, such as instant messaging, audio and video conferencing, desktop sharing, email and voice mail.

For example, unified communications might enable you to take advantage of a desk phone with an enhanced display that allows you to check email, look up and dial contacts, view appointment reminders and join online meetings. Or you may prefer an option that adds functionality to your cellphone so that your cellphone answers calls placed to your work phone and that any calls you dial from that cellphone appear to come from your work phone (ensuring that your private cellphone number remains private).

How is this all possible? These unified communications benefits can be realized by employing SIP, the telephony industry standard, which stands for “session initiation protocol.” A SIP system is agnostic when it comes to the hardware that it connects to, and we recognize that Pitt needs a “hardware independent” solution.

Telephony survey
Unified communications makes possible a wide range of options. Through a survey of faculty and staff, we can determine which of those options provide the most value to the members of the Pitt community.

A telephone service survey has been directly distributed to key administrative and technical staff in departments across the University.

That survey is available to all faculty and staff members of the University community on Please take a few minutes to complete the survey by April 4.

David Dudgeon is a service owner in CSSD, helping to assess and address the Pitt community’s telephony experiences.


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