Many people might be wondering why we need or want to do this? After all, Rhodes already has a perfectly functional PBX system — why spend a lot of money fixing something that isn't broken?
The simple answer is that it is starting to break, but thus far we've been managing to plaster over the cracks.
Spend money to save money
Perhaps the most important problem is that the current phone system depends on copper circuits we lease from Telkom. This dates back to an era when legislation prevented Rhodes from laying its own copper cables between buildings, and we were required to contract Telkom to do so. There are currently some eight hundred lines that we rent from Telkom, and that we spend approximately R2million a year on.
While there is now nothing preventing us from installing our own copper circuits, it is no longer economically feasible for us to do so. It is significantly cheaper for us to upgrade our telephone system to make use of new technologies and to take advantage of the existing fibre optic links we've already installed between buildings to provide people with network and Internet access.
Thus the major motivating factor behind this renewal was to save money — by spending money on this renewal, we can save a significant amount each year in recurring rental costs. This makes the project a no-brainer from a financial perspective.
Simplify our environment
In the eleven years since the current PBX was installed, Rhodes has expanded and its telephony requirements have got more complex. The system has been expanded from three original nodes in 1999 to seven discrete nodes in 2010. These nodes are distributed over campus with one in each of the Africa Media Matrix, Bantu Steve Biko building, Barratt lecture complex, Beethoven House, Eden Grove, Main Admin and Struben building. Each phone on campus connects back to one of these nodes, and from there to the rest of the system. Phones currently use a mixture of IP telephony and analogue phone lines — the IP phones being a comparatively recent introduction in response to spiralling Telkom costs and their refusal to install new lines.
This creates a vastly complex system of dependencies and interconnections which is getting increasingly difficult to understand and manage.
At the moment it is very difficult to move phones from one portion of campus to another — it's like moving towns, you can't easily take your phone number with you. This presents problems when departments move around, since they often have to change numbers in the process. Even when we have managed to port numbers across campus, we haven't always managed to do so cleanly and it usually takes a while for all parts of the campus to be able to dial a phone in its new location.
Not all of the seven nodes that make up our PBX are created equal. Some of them, such as the ones in Struben building and the Africa Media Matrix have the benefit of fully redundant power, complete with a standby generator. Others have little or no power redundancy. In the same way, only some of the nodes can handle incoming and outgoing calls from outside of Rhodes. We depend on these nodes functioning in order to make outside calls, and so being able to reach them is critical. Some nodes have redundant connections to these central nodes, others do not. As a result, people's experiences when things go wrong differ widely — just because it seems okay to you doesn't mean that's everyone's experience.
The current telephone and computer networks were built independently of each other, and to different criteria. With the emergence of IP telephony on campus, this has started to cause us problems. The PBX nodes aren't all located in logical places on the computer network, which means that some of the nodes aren't as reliable or well connected as they could be. There's also a lot of duplication of the supporting infrastructure (batteries, cable frames, etc).
So a major advantage of the renewal project is that we get to re-design Rhodes' telephony environment to take into consideration our current and future requirements. Ultimately this means people should get a better, more consistent experience when using phones at Rhodes.
Embrace new technologies
Telephone technology has evolved significantly over the last two years. Whilst the basic concept of lifting a handset to make a call is still the same, modern telephone systems include huge numbers of additional features that have not previously been available at Rhodes.
One of the goals of the telephony renewal project was to select a new PBX system that allowed Rhodes to take full advantage of these advances. Thus our new PBX system will include features such as:
- Better accounting and call management features — your phone account will be easily available on the web, hopefully in real time.
- Unified messaging — integration between computers and the phone system, allowing you to dial numbers direct from web pages, pick up messages on your PC, etc
- Improved, up-to-date voicemail functionality
- Central phone directory available directly from your phone handset
- Contact centres — the ability to provide professional call-centre environments for telephone-dependent service divisions like the Registrar & IT
- Conference bridge — allowing 6-way teleconferencing, with full management of the conference
- Fixed-mobile convergence — allowing us to pass calls between Rhodes' PBX and the cellular networks using special handsets
- Soft phones — use your PC or laptop as a telephone
- Integration of remote sites such as the Gauteng Liaison Office, so they form a seamless part of our telephony environment
- A resilient design, intended to provide redundancy in the event of a disaster on campus
- SIP trunks — a standards-based way of interconnecting phone systems, to allow us to take advantage of new developments in South Africa and abroad, and potentially significantly reduce call costs
as well as many other things not mentioned here.