UI phone switch 'very successful' despite issues
URBANA — Amid grumbling about dropped calls and dysfunctional phone transfers, the University of Illinois made the formal switch to a new computer-based phone service last week.
The campus converted about 10,600 numbers from the old land-line system to the new voice-over-Internet phone service that's part of the $4.8 million Unified Communications system.
"While there have certainly been some issues, it's been very successful," said Greg Gulick, director of application services for Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services, known as CITES.
Unified Communications, run on Microsoft Exchange and Lync software, combines email, instant messaging, electronic calendars and phone service, all through a computer. It's designed to improve services for faculty and staff and save money — up to $3 million a year, by UI estimates.
It has been deployed in stages across campus, with the email and calendar functions already up and running. The majority of phone lines have now been "ported over" from AT&T to Windstream, the new provider, and another 4,000 or so will be converted in the fall after the campus works through any remaining issues, he said.
Some land-line phones will remain, for safety reasons, so that offices always have one or two available during outages or emergencies.
And some units will have more. The Child Development Laboratory is keeping a land-line phone in every classroom and at its front desk in order to comply with licensing regulations from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
Executive Director Brent McBride said the classrooms don't have computers, so teachers wouldn't have access to a phone if they switched over to the Lync system. They need to be able to contact other staff members during an emergency and be available to parents throughout the day, he said.
"It's a child-safety issue," McBride said.
And McKinley Health Center won't switch to the new system until procedures can be set up to ensure patient privacy.
The new system converts voice-mail messages to emails, which don't carry as much privacy protection as land-line calls, said Dr. Robert Palinkas, McKinley's director.
McKinley has strict procedures for how to handle voice messages left by students so their questions are addressed promptly and their privacy is protected, he said. Similar procedures will have to be set up to ensure emails or instant messages on the new system are protected in a similar fashion, he said.
The health center sees 80 percent of the student body during the course of a year, and students are sometimes dealing with substance abuse or other issues that could be "career busters" if they were disclosed publicly, he said.
Also, the voice-to-email translation software isn't 100 percent accurate, which could be a problem in a medical situation, Palinkas said.
"There may well be some bugs that we would want worked out before we move over," Palinkas said.
Across campus, complaints have ranged from calls that won't transfer to calls that suddenly end in mid-conversation to employees being unable to use phones because they can't log in to their computers. In one case, every time an employee tried to send an email while she was on the phone it sounded like she was dialing a new call.
One common complaint involves phones that used to be answered by a group of people, or a general number not tied to any one employee, Gulick said. Usually an employee now has to log into that account for the phone to work.
So far the problems have been fairly localized, rather than systemic issues, Gulick said. Most involve people getting used to the new system or errors in the configuration or setup. The CITES help desk has been working to help sort out the problems, he said.
"There's always going to be issues when you do something this major," he said.
It just takes time to get used to various icons to transfer a call, put someone on hold or add a person to a call, said campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler, whose office switched over earlier this year.
"It's just a different paradigm," Kaler said. "In our office it was much more frustrating when we first got it than it is now."