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Cutting the Cord: Skype for Business Offers New Features, Efficiencies

New Unified Communication Solution Does Much More Than Just Phone Calls

Faculty member Saira Latif uses a bluetooth headset to make a Skype call Photo by Ed Brennen
Finance Department Chair Saira Latif uses her wireless Bluetooth headset to make a phone call from her laptop using Skype for Business.

By Ed Brennen

Before Lowell became the first city in the world to use telephone numbers in 1879, people connected to a switchboard operator and placed their calls by name.

Almost 140 years later, technology continues to change the way people communicate — and the university is keeping in step with that evolution.

Information Technology is in the process of replacing the campuswide telephone system with Microsoft’s Skype for Business, a solution that’s designed to help faculty and staff communicate and collaborate more effectively.

In addition to making and receiving phone calls, Skype for Business enables people to connect in real time using instant messaging, screen sharing, web conferencing and audio and video chats. The software integrates directly with Microsoft Office and is accessible on Windows, Mac, iOS and Android devices.

“The biggest benefits are flexibility and collaboration,” says Director of Network and Communication Services Steve Hall, who is leading the rollout of the project.

Over the next year, Hall and his team (which includes Manager of Voice Services Bill Anyon) will be going across campus, building by building, office by office, getting nearly 4,000 faculty and staff members set up and trained on the new system — and removing the old desk phones that have been around since almost the turn of the millennium. Users will keep their existing phone numbers on the new system, which is expected to be fully in place by June 2018.

Led by Chief Information Officer Michael Cipriano, IT selected Skype for Business as its Unified Communications solution after studying its options for almost a year. Hall and Director of Platforms and Systems Engineering Steve Athanas visited Indiana University, where 20,000 faculty and staff use the platform. UMass Lowell is the first campus in the UMass system to make the move.

“A lot of organizations that want to go this route can’t do so because they don’t have the reliable, high-performance infrastructure that we have,” Hall says. Fortunately for UMass Lowell, we’ve been fortifying our server and network environment over the last five years, so we can support this. Our first-rate network, voice and systems engineering teams have designed the critical infrastructure necessary for this kind of project.”

As Hall’s team trains users, they are encouraging people to use a new headset that plugs into their computer’s USB port or connects wirelessly via Bluetooth. But they are also offering the option of a new VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) desk phone that is compatible with Skype for Business. 

“We know some people want the familiarity of having a phone on their desk and picking up the handset to make a call, but we’re encouraging the headset option since it provides more mobility and flexibility,” Hall says. “You can pick up your laptop and move anywhere, on or off campus. Anywhere you have the internet, you have access to all the services.”

One of the services that users will notice is voicemail. Instead of calling in to listen to messages, voicemail messages show up as messages in your Outlook inbox (as well as in the Skype for Business application), making them more visible and accessible.

Another helpful tool is “presence,” which shows if a contact is “Available,” “Busy” or “Away.” Presence syncs with your Outlook calendar and automatically shows you as “Busy” if you are in a scheduled meeting, but you can always set your presence manually.

Instant messaging (IM), meanwhile, allows users to quickly communicate and share files with one another, similar to text messaging on a phone. Unlike text messages, however, IM through Skype for Business is 100 percent secure and encrypted.

“IM is huge, especially for groups that routinely collaborate with other groups,” Hall says. “The Solution Center is already using it heavily. If they have someone on the phone with a question, they can fire off an IM to the Registrar’s Office and get the question answered right away. It really changes the way you communicate.”

While Skype for Business will have future academic applications (such as video conferencing with remote classroom presenters or holding office hours from anywhere), Hall says the university isn’t pushing its use in the classroom yet since there are already other online offerings available such as Blackboard.

The new system has allowed the university to bring its call center capabilities in-house. The Solution Center and the IT Service Desk had previously outsourced their center phone service, but Skype for Business gave them the ability to manage incoming calls directly with better control and reliability. Hall says several other offices, including UCAPS and Facilities Management, are looking to follow suit.

Faculty and staff can start taking advantage of Skype for Business now – they just need to be running Microsoft Office 2016 (see the Skype for Business page for more information). Phone capabilities are not available, however, until Hall’s team schedules the migration and training.  

Hall expects the campus-wide rollout to take about a year and will work with each department on scheduling and training.