Students at Dartmouth can now use their computers as phones - and through an independent development, long distance charges are now also a thing of the past. This fall, Dartmouth's incoming freshmen can download free software that allows their Windows computers to function as telephones on both the campus's wireless and wired networks. This offering is one of several new mobile voice options from Dartmouth's Computing Services Department.
"I don't think anyone's done this before on such a large scale," says Bob Johnson, Associate Director for Telecommunications, "so we're eager to see how the community uses these new ways of communicating. We'll be studying it."
The "softphones," which are being phased in throughout the fall term starting with the first year students, allow any Windows computer to place and receive telephone calls. Wireless or wired, all users need is a headset or handset (available from the campus computer store), some free software from the Dartmouth Web site, and an assigned phone number in order to talk on the phone from Dartmouth to anyone, anywhere, anytime. There are a few new handheld wireless phone options as well.
"This software frees you from thinking a phone is a physical device," says Larry Levine, Director of Computing. "Your phone could be your laptop computer, your handheld computer, or any other wireless device."
The rollout of the software is the first of a new generation of communications technologies made possible by an upgrade of the campus data network this past winter and spring. Once separate, the data and telephone networks are now merged in a way that provides new services to the Dartmouth community, including voice-over Internet protocol, or VoIP. With VoIP, phone calls travel along the converged data-telephone network, eliminating long distance fees.
"Softphones are less expensive than cell phones," says Levine. "Because we've also simply stopped charging for long distance calls, no matter what kind of phone you use at Dartmouth there's no charge for long distance, whether you call from a regular phone or a softphone," says Levine.
This campus-wide technological experiment will be closely watched. Computer Science Professor David Kotz and his students, as well as Thayer School of Engineering professors and professionals from Computing Services, will all study the impact on both the wireless and wired networks as more and more converged traffic crosses the wires during the term.