Transition delayed for UI computer-based phone system

URBANA — A transition period for University of Illinois employees switching to a new computer-based phone system will be delayed by a month so phone companies can round up the 30,000 temporary phone numbers needed.

The university is moving to a "unified communications system," with integrated phone service, email, voice mail and calendar functions run through employees' computers on the same Microsoft "Lync" software package.

The email and calendar functions are already up and running, and the UI was scheduled to begin a "bridge" period to the new phone system next month, with employees' old land-line phones still operational.

Because employees' permanent phone numbers will still be associated with the land-line phones during that time, the bridge period requires 30,000 temporary phone numbers where calls can be transferred to run on the new Lync "voice over Internet" tool, similar to call-forwarding, said Paul Hixson, the campus chief information officer.

But Westwind, the telephone service provider for the new system, recently informed the university that the 30,000 numbers would not be available until February.

So the Academic Telecommunications Advisory Group decided to postpone the "bridge" phase from Jan. 9 to Feb. 13.

"Without these temporary phone numbers, campus users would not have the option to fully test the new Lync phone system during the bridge period," according to a mass email sent out Monday from CITES.

The change will still give employees several months to get used to the new system before the old phones are removed in May or June, officials said Monday.

It won't affect the overall project timeline, "as we are committed to the goal of providing campus with innovative technology to support teaching and research, while also saving costs for our university through an expeditious rollout of Unified Communications," the email said.

Greg Gulick, project manager for Unified Communications, said the university is working with Windstream and ATT, which controls the old phone numbers, to move them to the new system.

About 1,000 employees in several smaller units, such as the Illini Union and the Graduate College, are already testing the new phone system as part of an early "bridge" program, and the feedback has been "outstanding," Gulick said.

"The thing about Unified Communications is it's more than a phone replacement," he said. By combining phone service, email, voicemail, video-conferencing and other functions "it puts all those communication items at your fingertips," he said.

"That's part of the reason we did the bridge. We wanted people to experience it but not be depending on it, so they could get comfortable with it," he said. "We didn't want to put them in the situation of having to learn something too quickly and make it a harder transition than it had to be."

The exact date for the final changeover, when old phones will be cut off, hasn't been set but "we anticipate early May," Gulick said.

The biggest concern among employees is what devices they'll need with the new system, he said. It will run as software on their computers, so they will likely need earbuds, a headset or microphone to use it as a phone.

"There's a whole array of other helpful devices that are out there," Gulick said.

The Unified Communications system runs on a Mac or PC, with Lync software, but not mobile devices yet, he said.

Joe Yun, communications manager for Unified Communications, said most employees are still not sure how the various applications will all work together. He compares it to the days before smart phones, when people wondered why they'd need to text, browse the web and talk on the phone from one device.

"Now people say, 'How could we have survived without this?' " Yun said. "With our early adopters we found that once they get their hands on it, it's the smart-phone effect. They can't believe they did their job without Unified Communications."

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