Starting in fall 2006, students coming to Penn can look forward to an entirely new method of making phone calls from University dormitories, if Penn's Information Systems and Computing department has its way.

As opposed to regular phones, which send their signals through public switch networks, Voice over Internet Protocol allows telephone calls to be made over the Internet. VoIP software turns voice signals into digital data packets that can be conveyed directly to other VoIP users using IP -- the most common method of sending data online -- or processed at a "gateway" for communication with normal analog phone services or other digitalized systems.

The VoIP software will be written by VoIP specialists within the Internet2 Working Group, a technology consortium of which Penn is a leading member. Internal pilots of VoIP are currently being conducted by Networking and Telecommunications within ISC.

"We first test new technologies out on ourselves," said Deke Kassabian, senior technology director in N&T;, using a recently installed VoIP phone. "Around 15 people here in the office use it. The technology seems to work well, but there is still much work to be done to scale VoIP services to the very large number of users we have at Penn."

Kassabian pointed out that a larger user base would introduce factors that wouldn't necessarily affect smaller populations, like time lag and server overload.

A likely implementation of VoIP in student dormitories would utilize data wall plates already installed in each room. In a "hard" VoIP setup, students would plug a VoIP phone -- resembling a traditional phone with handset and numeric keypad -- into the wall.

With a "soft" client, personal computers or laptops connected to the data plate would work together with software and microphones or headsets to connect the voice call.

"Students would probably have to pay different fees for different levels of service," N&T; Vice President Michael Palladino said.

"Prices will be comparable to what students pay now for [telephone] service. It can't be free, as there are still long-distance charges, and we have to pay for maintenance and development and other things."

Palladino also noted that VoIP, if installed, wouldn't just replace the limited usage of a telephone. "In our current pilot study, voicemail is automatically transferred as a sound file to e-mail. That could be a feature -- or a drawback, to some," he said.

Other potential applications include integrated text and instant messaging capacities, as well as greater text and graphics interaction with voice conversations.

ISC plans to hold focus groups in October and November to assess student needs and issues, and is hopeful for a limited pilot study in the dormitories by the spring of next year. If successful, VoIP could be installed -- by itself or as an alternative to analog -- as early as fall 2006.

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