Union in the News for September 20, 2004
Students hang up on dorm phones
By Kenneth Aaron - The Times Union
A.J. Babnik, an 18-year-old freshman at the University at Albany, just got a 52-cent telephone bill and he's confused. Babnik, see, has never made a long-distance call from the phone in his dorm room and he never plans to. "Too expensive," he said, before walking off and placing a call on his cellphone.
Oh, A.J., you're just the type of guy who's making college telecom types ponder their new world.
As mobile phones become nearly ubiquitous among college students, most have stopped using the phones in their dorm rooms to make long-distance calls. Millions of long-distance minutes, and untold dollars for colleges, have evaporated over the past five years. The change has left colleges exploring deals with cellphone companies for other money-generating ideas.
"It's costing them more just to upkeep the network than to actually provide the service to the students," said Su Li Walker, an associate analyst at the Yankee Group, a Boston technology research firm.
UAlbany hasn't seen a commission check from its dormitory long-distance provider in five years. At Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, callers used about 2.1 million long-distance minutes in 1998, with students responsible for 60 percent to 70 percent of those. Last year, the total fell to 810,000 minutes. Almost none belonged to students.
That's typical. "We made a significant amount of revenue over the years," said Diane McNamara, director of telecommunications at Union College in Schenectady. "We all relied on that long-distance revenue to fund other things," such as network improvements.
Her department and many others aren't in the red because they make money through a fee for phone service built into dorm charges.
Without the long distance, McNamara is thinking of other ways to generate cash. She's been talking with several cellphone companies to collaborate on a plan in which Union would share some revenue generated by students who subscribe.
At the College of Agriculture and Technology at Morrisville, administrators already have cut the cord. Last fall, they replaced all the land lines in dorms with Nextel phones. Officials wouldn't discuss the financial details behind the arrangements. Students get local calling included in their room-and-board charge and can sign up for long-distance service through Nextel.
"As best we can tell, our students really love it and they use it," said Jean Boland, vice president of information technology services at Morrisville.
Other schools are pushing the tech boundaries, too. UAlbany has entered a contract with a cellular company that promises the campus $2.50 per subscriber every month. T-Mobile has set up a network of wireless Internet points at American University in Washington, D.C., where students can go online for free. But if students want to use T-Mobile's off-campus "hot spots," they have to pay extra.
Ironically, the more connected that students are, the harder it can be to get in touch with them.
Many don't provide their cellphone numbers to schools. "These kids are very mobile and they're very independent," McNamara said. "If they don't want to be reached, they won't be reached."
It's not for lack of trying.
"We still provide a phone line in every room," said Tim Casey, director of network and technical services at Skidmore. "What we don't do is automatically assume they're going to use it."
Students might never plug a phone into the jack in their room. Voice mail might answer, but there's no guarantee a student will ever check it. Many message boxes simply overflow.
So next year, Skidmore will discontinue its printed directory.
Professors sometimes squawk about having to make a long-distance call to reach a student who may be down the hall. Also, campus officials nationwide are wondering how to handle emergency calls, which don't always get routed to the closest agency with cellphones.
Walker, of the Yankee Group, said tech companies will increasingly look to campuses as test beds for new technology such as voice over Internet protocol, which uses high-speed connections to carry telephone calls.
John Bradley, director of networking and telecommunications at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, said a pilot project is ongoing to roll out such a system there.
"That is really the future of voice communication," he said.