Wake Forest University students have a firm grip on the future of technology. Indeed, up to 500 students at the Winston-Salem, N.C.-based institution are expected to use dual-mode phones that support cellular calls and IP communications this fall.
"You can surf the web and view video over WiFi or make a cell call from a single device," explains Jay Dominick, chief information officer and assistant VP of information systems, adding that, in previous years, the school has done personal digital assistant projects. "PDAs were useful, but if students were going to carry one thing we knew it would be a cell phone. That's what students ultimately want: one device for all their mobile needs."
That's for sure. As students moved from e-mail to instant messaging (IM) to short message service (SMS, a.k.a. text messaging) on digital phones, Wake Forest quickly realized that mobile phones would need to tie into the university's broader IT strategy, says Dominick.
That set the stage for dual-mode phones. Though still in their infancy, the devices may reshape cellular, WiFi, and mobile applications across university campuses. As dual-mode phones mature, they will be able to seamlessly connect to WiFi or cellular networks, based on the user's location and the relative signal strength of each network.
University CIOs from across the country have high hopes for dual-mode phones. "They'll be key devices for community building and collaborative learning," says Chellappa Kumar, CIO of the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine. "And they'll deliver financial savings. Students with dual-mode phones will be able to talk to each other a lot more over WiFi networks without using up their cellular minutes."
Just ask David Hattey, president and CEO of FirstHand Technologies, about the monetary benefits of these devices. Hattey estimates that he saved his company $1,500 in cellular roaming charges during a recent business trip in Europe. His dual-mode phone, which has cellular and WiFi capabilities, logged more than 17 hours connected to WiFi hot spots across Europe.
Admittedly, Hattey has a vested interest in dual-mode's success. The Ontario-based company develops multimedia client software for smart phones, WiFi handsets, and emerging dual-mode devices.
Despite their promise, dual-mode phones also come with cost, network, application, and device challenges. For starters, many dual-mode phones cost $500 or more. The average price, though, could drop to $400 each by 2008, according to the research firm Access Intelligence.
Most dual-mode phones are untested in college and university environments, and dozens of devices have yet to emerge from Silicon Valley development labs. In some cases, interoperability issues have slowed or halted device development.
For instance, Cisco Systems and Motorola last year partnered to design a dual-mode phone that connects to cellular services as well as Cisco's enterprise IP phone switches. But based on publicly announced design plans, prospective customers complained that the devices likely wouldn't interoperate with other vendors' networks. Cisco and Motorola ultimately scrapped their joint development work in April 2006. Cisco is now working with Nokia on standardized dual-mode phones that will likely ship before year's end.
Other challenges loom. Institutions of higher ed will need to ensure that dual-mode systems provide ample bandwidth, security, coverage, and seamless handoffs between cellular and WiFi networks, notes Peter Brockman, senior VP of business development at FirstHand.
Wake Forest has already witnessed these challenges. The university has tested Cingular's 8125 smart phone, which allows students to make cell phone calls or, when in a WiFi hot zone, surf the web and view streaming video. Overall, Wake Forest officials are very pleased with the devices and upbeat about dual-mode's promise.
However, Dominick concedes that additional device and campus network enhancements are required to unlock the full power of dual-mode phones.
For instance, students who use the devices to place calls over the school's WiFi network will notice inconsistent or subpar service. "It's not fully baked yet," says Dominick. "Students can get Skype client [software] for the smart phones. This will let them place calls on the WiFi network but the quality isn't there yet. The service doesn't roam real well as you move between [WiFi] access points."
Brockman has observed similar challenges with dual-mode phones. "On the application front, you'll need to ensure seamless links between call servers, mobile devices, cellular services, and the public telephone infrastructure," he says. "Dual-mode phones also come with device-specific challenges related to battery life, radio performance, screen size, storage, processor performance, and memory."
In other words, dual-mode phones will require extensive testing-much in the way that WiFi networks and laptops required careful consideration back when wireless networks first came onto the scene.
Still, proponents insist that WiFi's popularity and students' growing interest in all-in-one mobile devices will drive dual-mode phones to mass popularity within two years.
"I don't know if it's 12 or 18 months until the devices [offer seamless roaming for WiFi and cell networks]," says Dominick. "But it's certainly not far beyond that."
Other college leaders agree. Kumar at NYCOM, for one, has high hopes for leveraging the institution's WiFi infrastructure, which currently delivers streaming video and other academic content to student laptops. As students begin to embrace dual-mode phones over the next year or two, the devices will "immediately leverage our WiFi infrastructure to receive academic content and university announcements," predicts Kumar.
The dual-mode phone revolution is already underway in Asia. Consider the situation in Taipei City, Taiwan. Under the city's "Taipei Easy Call" initiative, more than 200,000 people are expected to use wireless internet phones and Skype by the end of this year, according to a statement issued by the Taipei Computer Association. In Europe, BT Group (formerly British Telecom) and Orange-a major WiFi service provider-expect to release dual-mode phones later this year.
And in the United States, 76 percent of large companies expect at least some of their mobile workers to use dual-mode phones within the next three years, according to Access Intelligence.
Companies such as Rave Wireless are introducing next-generation mobile phone services for institutions of higher ed and their students. At Montclair State University (N.J.) for instance, students and officials can use Rave's wireless service to track the exact location of campus transportation vehicles. The university also conducts in-class and remote interactive polling over the service. And students can use their mobile phones to gather localized information, such as nearby restaurant specials or real-time updates from the campus library.
Instead of deploying dual-mode phones on their own, many IHEs instead plan to support devices that students purchase on their own. "The consumer market moves really rapidly," notes Jill Cherveny-Keough, director of academic computing at New York Institute of Technology, which has three campuses, one in Manhattan and two on Long Island. "I don't expect us to buy dual-mode phones for our students. I think students will already have them when they enroll."
NYIT students with dual-mode phones and the appropriate network security clearance can instantly utilize the college's WiFi network. "It's more than a device for chatting," says Cherveny-Keough. "Students can check in on their online courses, view e-mail-and even make free phone calls home to mom and dad. You can expect students would gain more efficient use of their cellular plan. Dual-mode phones will cut [calling] costs for sure."
Even at institutions that aren't quite ready for dual-mode phones, IT administrators can take gradual steps today to ensure that their network infrastructure supports future dual-mode rollouts.
Wake Forest, for instance, last year became the nation's first test ground for combination PocketPC phone devices on a college campus. The project-known as Mobile University, Mobile You-is now open to all students, faculty, and staff of the Reynolda campus for the fall of 2006.
Program members receive discounts on voice and data plans; discounted purchase price for the Cingular 8125; and access to custom software developed for members of the pilot program. A voice-enabled laundry service, for instance, tells students when their laundry is complete. Based on that test bed, Wake Forest this fall is rolling out up to 500 of these devices to students.
Wireless and mobile device experts praise the mobile computing program for its vision. "Wake Forest has deployed one of the most progressive, forward-thinking [wireless device] implementations," says Robert Liu, executive editor of TMCnet, a portal that tracks mobile and wireless trends. "That is a solid foundation to build upon."
Naturally, university IT managers will need to master multiple technologies in order to optimize applications for dual-mode devices. Experts recommend learning about Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), which is rapidly emerging as a standard for rich IP communications. SIP can be used for all real-time services such as instant messaging and web-based conferencing. If legacy applications such as voice services don't currently support SIP, university officials should contact their application vendors to see if they plan future support for SIP.
Higher ed officials can see dual-mode phones in action at Voice over IP and cellular conferences-or reach out to networking partners such as Cisco and offer to beta test their dual-mode devices while they're still under development. This will offer a feel for a device's strengths, weaknesses, and potential applications.
Concludes Cherveny-Keough: "Dual-mode phones are inevitable. Why carry your PDA, laptop, and cell phone, when all you would need is one device?"
Joseph C. Panettieri is VP of editorial content at Microcast Communications (www.microcast.biz). He has covered Silicon Valley and vertical markets since 1992.