Internet phones have arrived

Internet phones have arrived
The idea of digitizing voices isn't new; just listen to a CD. But digitizing phone calls, organizing them in "packets," and sending them over network lines is now becoming mainstream. Dartmouth is embracing this new technology by converting its traditional phone lines to voice-over Internet protocol, or VOIP.

As part of Dartmouth's planned upgrade, a new and improved network infrastructure, which was gradually installed over the last five months, will be rigorously tested over the next few weeks. The new equipment allows for "convergence," a term that describes the fact that cable TV, voice and data will travel through one line.

"Convergence is saving us space and money," says Brad Noblet, director of technical services for Peter Kiewit Computing Services. "The jack in the wall becomes an all-in-one utility, and we upgrade all three systems with one shot."

From a user's point of view, sending phone calls over the data lines with a new system works exactly the same way as before. The actual VOIP phone set looks a little different, but users will not otherwise notice a difference in basic telephone service, says Noblet. However, the new system brings new conveniences, such as the ability to place calls or retrieve messages from a wireless-enabled laptop via Dartmouth's campuswide wireless network.

"I find it very easy to use, and I use it routinely to call off campus," says John Winn, Professor of Chemistry. "I particularly like that it keeps a list of calls I've placed; I just scroll back to a previously-called number and lift the receiver to place a new call to that number."

Barry Scherr, Provost and the Mandel Family Professor of Russian, agrees. "I like it," he says. "It's a mini computer that doubles as a phone; I can even get news headlines on it."

According to Bob Johnson, Associate Director of Telecommunications, the upgrade provided Dartmouth with a tenfold increase in overall bandwidth capacity and improved network intelligence that brings us "out to the edge of current technology."

"Our old network worked with routers going through one hub," says Johnson. "We replaced the hubs with switches and upgraded all the routers to provide better, uninterrupted service." This means that Dartmouth has upgraded its system to better manage the torrent of information flowing around the campus and to and from the rest of the world.

The new equipment ensures that messages are not slowed down, adds Johnson. Whether it's voice, data or cable TV information that's moving around our campus network, service will be consistent and reliable. Backup generators have been installed as part of the upgrade, ensuring that network service will never be compromised and 911 service will continue to function in an emergency.

While VOIP is tested, though, the old phone service will remain in place.

"We have a three-year safety net," says Noblet. "That's how long our existing telephone contract runs."

Alex Jordan '03, from Chelmsford, Mass., is an engineering major working with the VOIP infrastructure for his senior thesis. He is working with specialized digital radios that use the amateur radio bands to make long distance network connections. He is creating a new network independent of the campus system that will be able to operate over much longer distances.

"Since the radios are portable," he says, "it would be possible to set up these wireless video and voice connections virtually anywhere using just a laptop, a commercial webcam and the digital radios. They would be especially well-suited for emergency or disaster areas where traditional modes of communication have been rendered inoperable. It has been exciting to see how well the VOIP standards work and to get the chance to use them to meet our communication needs over these new networks."