Schools dial up new communication plans

With nine out of 10 college students now carrying cell phones, a growing number of schools are pulling traditional telephone landlines from dormitories, setting up special cellular service, and providing college-specific cell phones.

Morrisville State College in upstate New York has replaced the landlines in its dormitories with cell phones. The University of Scranton in Pennsylvania plans to drop traditional phone service in its dorms this fall, except for a few house phones, and stay in touch with students via their personal cell phones. Austin College in Sherman, Texas, plans to use mainly eMail to contact students.

At press time, the University of Cincinnati (UC) was preparing to offer a free “Bearcat Phone” to an estimated 4,000 incoming freshmen at its June orientation through a partnership with Cincinnati Bell.

“The landline probably will be obsolete in five years or so, and we want to be in the forefront of new technology,” said Frederick Siff, UC’s vice president and chief information officer, who believes multifunctional cell phones will even overtake laptops: “Students don’t carry laptops around constantly, but they always have their cell phones.” Under the voluntary UC program, students could get a free standard phone offering basic voice and mobile text and instant-messaging services; buy a trendier thin phone that could offer more data services; or upgrade to a more expensive, multifunctional “smart phone” with a keyboard and features such as Windows technology.

Students also would get features such as five-digit, on-campus dialing; wireless access to grades and other information; and unlimited local calling to other Bell phones, depending on the rate plan they purchase. Students could reach campus emergency services with the push of a button. Siff said the plan is eventually to use a Global Positioning System to locate a student on campus who presses a mobile help button.

Pricing is still being developed for the rate plans and phones that would be sold to students at discounts. A $510 smart phone with discounts might cost about $420 under the UC program, but Siff thinks that cost could be driven down even more.

UC will invest the equivalent of $1.5 million a year for five years–much of that as new customers for Bell–and Bell will create new wireless access points and upgrade cellular coverage across campus.

Cincinnati Bell and Sprint Nextel Corp., which also has worked with universities on wireless and cellular programs, say the arrangements give them access to new customers and allow schools to offer services that some see as competitive advantages in attracting students.

The challenge is to make the Bearcat phones so appealing in affordability and features that students will want to switch from their existing cell phones, Siff said.

Eric Weil, a managing partner with Student Monitor, which publishes a nationally syndicated research study of the college student market, said he’s not sure if schools can compete from a pricing standpoint with the family plans that many students are locked into when they get to campus.

“Schools are trying to respond to what they think students want in technology, but I think some of these ideas will be met with limited interest by students and parents,” he said. Whether schools can save money by removing landlines depends on the type of phone systems they use. Some schools own their telephone networks and paid for them years ago, while others pay monthly for every phone line on campus.

The University of Scranton expects to invest the $200,000 a year it has been spending on dormitory phone lines to update its campus cable TV network and other data services, said Jerry DeSanto, vice president for planning and chief information officer.

Some schools aren’t ready to make that leap. Officials at Towson University in Maryland worry about potential lawsuits if students don’t have reliable landline service in their dorm rooms in case of emergency.

“While the money we pay for landlines in each room could be reinvested elsewhere, I don’t like the idea of depending solely on a few courtesy phones in hallways,” Towson telecommunications analyst Alex Konialian said.

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