URBANA — Someday soon, probably this month, most of the telephones you're accustomed to seeing on office desks will disappear from the University of Illinois campus.
The UI is in the final stages of a sweeping change in the way employees communicate — or more precisely, in the technology they use to send email or talk on the phone.
The new "Unified Communications" system, run on Microsoft Exchange and Lync software, combines email, instant messaging, electronic calendars and phone service, all through a computer.
It has been a change in mindset for employees, but it also provides high-tech conveniences.
Things like conference calls with the click of a mouse. Video instant messaging. Pop-up windows that show who's calling. Colored boxes that tell callers whether you're in, out or busy. Voice mail messages delivered via email (sometimes humorously so).
Demonstrating the call-transfer function on his computer last week, public affairs research coordinator Chris Harris said planners describe it as a "paradigm shift."
"I'm not used to using my mouse to answer the phone," Harris said. "It's very strange. It really isn't a phone conversation any more. It's a computer discussion with audio."
Unified Communications grew out of the campus Stewarding Excellence process and is designed to foster collaboration, improve service for faculty and staff, and save money — up to $3 million a year, by UI estimates.
It's being deployed in stages across campus and is scheduled to be fully implemented by July 1, according to project manager Greg Gulick, director of application services for Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services, known as CITES.
The email and calendar functions are already up and running, and the UI began a "bridge" period to the new phone system this spring.
Employees' land-line phones are still operational, but on Tuesday — "UC Phone Transition Day" — CITES asked workers to forward their old numbers to their new Lync "voice over Internet" tool, so when the final switchover takes place later this month the transition will barely be noticeable, Gulick said. The old phones will be collected and sent back to the state.
Several challenges remain, not the least of which is working out all the details for enhanced 911 service, which pinpoints a caller's number and location for METCAD during an emergency.
And the phone system isn't quite as convenient for Mac/Apple users, because Microsoft's software for Macs is not as fully developed as it is for Windows.
Employees are still adjusting to various features, like forwarding calls via computer or having to log in first thing so they can get phone calls. Harris was stunned when a video call popped up on his screen one day (a feature that can be disabled).
And faculty have raised concerns about privacy and potential system crashes.
Gulick and other IT staff say they're addressing the concerns.
"I would say it's gone pretty well once people actually start using it," said Cindi Howard, director of business and operations at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. "It's been a little difficult getting people to use it."
A unified system
The campus began exploring a new system two years ago when its contract for the old Centrex/AT&T phone system was about to be rebid.
Officials wanted to use the campus high-speed broadband network and provide a more modern communications system incorporating email and calendars as well, said Mike Andrechak, vice provost and associate chancellor for budgets and resource planning.
They looked at outside vendors with voice-over-Internet services, but then Microsoft came out with its Lync software package that used existing hardware, he said.
"It was a very low-cost option to move away from our old phone system," Andrechak said. "If we had gone to one of the other alternatives, we would have ended up borrowing tens of millions of dollars to handle all of the equipment we would have needed to purchase."
The new system is expected to reduce phone bills by 17 percent, he said.
The projected savings in overall IT expenditures on campus is $3 million annually starting in fiscal 2013, which begins July 1. That includes CITES billing departments $1.5 million less than what they paid in fiscal 2010, Gulick said.
The implementation cost was originally forecast at $4 million, with the plan to provide services to 24,000 faculty, staff and graduate assistants over three years, Gulick said. But the campus shortened the timeline to two years and doubled the scope to include almost 50,000 people — including graduate students, hourly employees, retirees, central university administration and university affiliates, he said. The current implementation cost is projected at $4.8 million.
The primary costs were staff time and the purchase of phones and headsets, Andrechak said.
Unified Communications also provides individualized phone service to departments that haven't had it for years because of budget constraints, he said.
"We're expanding service at a lower cost," Andrechak said.
How it works
The system allows employees to talk on their "phone" using the computer's microphone and speakers, a headset plugged into the computer's USB port, a wireless Bluetooth device, or, for traditionalists, a handset "phone" that also plugs into the computer.
Offices requiring privacy, such as financial aid, quickly decided not to rely on computer speakers, Harris said.
CITES hasn't tracked how many people opted for handsets or headsets, as departments made those decisions based on budgets, Gulick said.
The handsets are more expensive — most $100 or more, compared with less than $50 for a headset. Krannert has 80 employees, plus another 20 or so department phones, so the price difference was significant, Howard said.
Most Krannert employees are using the new system, though there was a great deal of reluctance at first, she said.
"They just really don't like the idea of not having a traditional phone sitting on their desks," she said. "Once they get in there, they're happy with how it works."
They like instant messaging and the easy access to the campus phone directory, which allows them to simply click on a name to make a call. The shared desktop feature enables two people in different locations to look at the same computer file.
Howard likes being able to see immediately whether someone is in by the box next to his or her name. Green means "available," orange is "busy," red means "do not disturb," and yellow is "away."
Employees can change the status manually, but it also links to the daily appointments in their Outlook calendar.
There are glitches. If a headset isn't plugged in when the program is launched, the computer won't recognize it. Then employees usually complain the headset is defective.
"We have a lot of operator error," Howard said.
Mac users have more challenges. The Lync software for Macs works fine for some users, but not others. It doesn't offer as many features as the Windows version.
At Krannert, where all the offices use Macs, the system doesn't display which line is ringing as it does for Windows users, Howard said.
"The main line to the center goes to three different people. When their phone rings, it could be the main line, their personal line or something else," she said.
Microsoft has promised "platform parity" by early 2013, said Chuck Thompson, chief IT officer for the College of Engineering, who heads a governance committee for Unified Communications.
The number of phone devices available for Macs is also more limited. Some employees are using an IP phone that plugs into the network, so it doesn't have to run through a computer. They are more expensive, up to $200, but prices are coming down, he said.
A more serious issue is making sure emergency personnel know where to go when a 911 call comes in.
The old phone lines and switches allowed METCAD to determine where a call originated down to the building and room number, Thompson said. Now calls are routed through computer ports, but the campus hasn't always kept records with the location of every port, he said. And that data has to be translated into usable information for METCAD.
For instance, Thompson's Lync line has a location field of 0015-0203B. The first four numbers refer to Engineering Hall, and the last four are his office number.
If someone else plugged into that port, that employee would show the same location. That information has to be converted to a street address and forwarded to METCAD.
The UI hired a Microsoft-certified private vendor, 911 Enable, for that service. The company will be paid $114,000 for initial hardware and the first 12 months of maintenance, then $34,000 annually, Gulick said.
CITES is now testing the system with the UI Division of Public Safety and METCAD.
"The system is very slick. ... We just need to make sure that it's providing the safety factors," said Jeff Christensen, interim UI police chief who has been chosen to be the next chief of the department.
What if an employee is working somewhere else on campus with a wireless connection?
The 911 system would record the nearest access point, probably a building location — not quite as specific but "the best we can do," Thompson said.
If the system doesn't provide enough information, 911 Enable will provide an operator who will ask the caller questions and then route the information to METCAD, he said.
"The end result is to have the exact same thing happen as the regular 911 call on your phone. The technical details of providing it are different," Thompson said.
Some areas of campus deemed higher risk are keeping their blue land-line emergency phones, such as labs with hazardous chemicals. Krannert added one to its lower level near student workshops, Howard said.
Outages and reliability
In the old days when the campus suffered a power outage or a problem with computer servers, the land-line phones still worked. With Unified Communications, phone service would be interrupted along with email and other computer functions in a widespread crash.
But Thompson and others say the chances of a total network failure are remote. The system has several built-in redundancies, with backup generators and duplicate servers in Chicago if Urbana's fail, or in the event of a campus outage.
"It's been designed to be very robust," Gulick said.
In a localized outage, an employee could take his laptop to another part of campus and hook up to a wireless connection, he said.
Thompson noted the old phone system had some significant service disruptions in recent months, when lines were cut inadvertently during construction, for example.
The old phone system always reported 99.999 percent "up time," but once you factor in occasional construction mishaps, "on a practical level, this system is going to be very close in reliability," Gulick said.
The new system also has more capacity for bandwidth, so the chances of getting that "all circuits are busy" message during an emergency are low, he said.
Many employees also have cell phones, but UI officials say they're not relying on that.
And some units, including Krannert, are keeping a land line or two, just as a backup.
Are conversations private?
Addressing the campus senate in February, Gulick said the most frequent questions are: Are my phone conversations or instant messages being recorded?
The answer is "quite simply no," Gulick told faculty. "We don't even have the capability of recording phone conversations."
There's no central recording of any communication, and content is saved only in individual users' inboxes. But employees do have the ability to record their own phone calls and save instant message conversations, though they're instructed to inform the person on the other end verbally if they record a call.
The Lync system for Windows will notify the other party to that effect, but not for Macs. Employees can also set their computers not to save conversations.
CITES has set up a privacy page to address those concerns: http://www.cites.illinois.edu/uc/privacy.html .
Engineering Professor Arne Perlstein wondered whether callers who leave voice mail understand that their transcribed email messages could be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
Gulick said voice mail was always covered under FOIA. "Technology is just making it easier now."
Some units are moving more cautiously before converting to Unified Communications because of safety or business concerns.
McKinley Health Center has opted out until it can ensure the privacy of health records.
And units that use "automatic call distribution" with multiple lines to sell tickets or raise money, such as the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, pose unique challenges.
Eventually all units will be part of the system, Gulick said.
"This is the new voice system for the university. The expectation is that everyone moves," Thompson said.
This story appeared in print on June 3.