College overcomes mobile blackspot with voice-over-WLAN

When Hertford Regional College unveiled its new learning facilities last year, it became immediately apparent that there was a serious problem. Thanks to the insulating materials used to fill the wall cavities of the £85 million building, all mobile phone signals were blocked.

“It’s a common problem in new constructions, but we weren’t prepared for it,” recalls Dr Daniel Hidlebaugh, network services manager at the college.

With 12,000 students and 900 staff roaming its premises, mobile communications are essential to the college’s internal operations, and the setback caused chaos in the halls. “People were spending several hours running after people because we couldn’t contact them,” says Hidlebaugh. “We didn’t know what to do.”
On the recommendation of wireless networking consultancy Convergis, the college implemented a mobility router from US provider Agito. This routes all mobile phone calls through the college’s existing wireless local area network (WLAN) – not blocked by the insulation – effectively converting it into a private mobile telephony network.

The deployment reclaimed what was otherwise dead time for employees in two ways: firstly by making mobile communications at all possible, but also by providing live “presence” information that allows key staff to be contacted based on their availability and geographic location.

The simplicity and speed of the deployment impressed Hidlebaugh. “The speed of the turnaround blew me away,” he says. “I was actually expecting a couple of days of fussing and tweaking, but half a day later and we were up and running.” He adds that there was no deterioration in the sound quality of calls.
And not only did the deployment solve the college’s internal communication difficulties, it also quickly delivered quantifiable savings. The college’s £3,000 a month telephony bill was halved almost immediately as a direct result of the Agito product.
At present, the service is only available to selected members of staff, but the college’s network services department is enthusiastic about opening up the technology to all of its employees, and eventually, its students too.

Aside from the technical and economic benefits, Hertford’s adoption of such ‘bleeding edge’ communications technology has also enhanced its reputation as a learning centre, Hidlebaugh believes.

“When I was hired my mandate was to make sure the college was ahead of the [technological] curve,” he says. “When you’re out there competing for students, it’s all about what you look like to them and how you can portray yourself as an advanced technical institution.”

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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