Technical experts say most U.S. schools are at least considering changes.
"In many cases, students and student expectations are driving what schools need to do," said Greg Tritsch, director for communications technologies for Acentech, a consulting company that has worked with schools on the issue. "Some are waiting to see which competing technology will win the horse race, but most are aware that this issue will need serious attention in the future."
Some schools aren't waiting.
Morrisville State College in upstate New York has replaced landlines in dormitories with cell phones. The University of Scranton in Pennsylvania plans to drop the traditional phone service in dorms this fall, except for a few house phones, and stay in touch with students via their personal cell phones. Austin College in Sherman, Texas, plans to use mainly e-mail to contact students.
The University of Cincinnati is preparing to offer a free "Bearcat Phone" to an estimated 4,000 incoming freshmen at June orientation through a partnership with Cincinnati Bell.
"The landline probably will be obsolete in five years or so, and we want to be in the forefront of new technology," said Frederick Siff, UC vice president and chief information officer, who believes multifunctional cell phones will overtake laptops. "Students don't carry laptops around constantly, but they always have their cell phones."
Under the voluntary UC program, which is still being fine-tuned, students could get a free standard phone offering basic voice and mobile text and instant messaging services, buy a trendier thin phone that could offer more data services or upgrade to a more expensive multifunctional "smart phone" with a keyboard and features such as Windows technology.
Students also would get access to features such as five-digit on-campus dialing, wireless access to grades and other academic and campus information and unlimited local calling to other Bell phones depending on the rate plan they purchase. Students could reach campus emergency services with the push of one button. Siff said the plan is to eventually use a Global Positioning System to locate a student on campus who presses a mobile help button.
Pricing is still being developed for the rate plans and phones that would be sold to students at discounts. A $510 smart phone with discounts might cost about $420 under the UC program, but Siff thinks that cost could be driven down even more.
UC will invest the equivalent of $1.5 million a year for five years — much of that as new customers for Bell — and Bell will create new wireless Internet points and upgrade cell coverage across campus.
Cincinnati Bell and Sprint Nextel Corp., which also has worked with universities on wireless and cellular programs, say the arrangements give them access to new customers and allow schools to offer services that some see as competitive advantages in attracting students.