Mobile companions put campus in better touch

July 30, 1999

Contacting academic staff can be difficult enough. But it can be even more problematic to contact support staff such as janitors and technicians whose work takes them all over campus.

Edinburgh's Telford College is experimenting with a pioneering communications system which it believes offers an economic solution. Obliged to upgrade its 25 year old non-digital telephone system, Telford is trying out a Pounds 180,000 new voice and data network from BT and Nortel Networks on an experimental basis.

Already, 13,000 of 77,000 callers on the new system have sought information through electronic options rather than speaking to an operator, and almost 300 students have enrolled without having to speak to anyone. Telford has also installed videoconferencing, desktop faxes and email, and a voicemail system for staff which may get extended to distance learning students, enabling them to keep in touch with their tutors more easily.

Jim Haluch, Telford's head of facilities and marketing, says: "The BT/Nortel solution was not the cheapest, but it provided the best value for money. We wanted something that was future-proof."

And a key innovation has been the wireless Companion DECT system: Telford believes it is one of the first academic institutions in the country to use it. This effectively offers staff the convenience of mobile phones while avoiding their cost. The scheme is being piloted in one of Telford's five campuses, but may get extended throughout the college.

There are seven small base stations, around 20cm wide, sited on internal walls, transmitting across the campus. A "starter pack" of four base stations and eight mobile phones costs around Pounds 4,000. Calls to their desk phone, no matter at which campus, can be redirected to the mobile. And the system does not incur the normal mobile charge for receiving a redirected call.

"With the Companion system, it's not a mobile phone, it's just a telephone extension. You've integrated your telephone system into mobile telephony," says Mr Haluch.

"There's a capital cost but you're not paying ongoing calls or a monthly rental. If someone calls, say, from Brussels, they're phoning into the normal telephone system, and they're paying for the call." Academics can easily call technicians if there are audio-visual problems during a lecture. Janitors and maintenance staff have in the past had two-way radios, but on different channels.

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