With nine out of 10 college students carrying cell phones these days, schools are pulling telephone landlines from dormitories, setting up special cellular service and providing college-specific cell phones.
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.
The challenge is to make the Bearcat phones so appealing in affordability and features that students will want to switch from their existing cell phones, Siff said.
Eric Weil, a managing partner with Student Monitor, which publishes a nationally syndicated marketing research study of the college student market, said he is not sure if schools can compete from a pricing standpoint with the family plans that many students are locked into when they get to campus.
"I think schools generally are trying to respond to what they think students want in technology, but I think some of these ideas will be met with limited interest by students and parents," he said.
Morrisville has been pleased with its deal with Nextel Partners Inc., which provided the cell replacements for traditional phone service.
Students are charged for the cell phones in residence hall fees, said Jean Boland, Morrisville's vice president of technology services. Incoming and local calls, voice mail and Caller ID are free, while students pay for long distance. Phones are returned upon graduation.
Whether schools can save money by removing landlines depends on the type of phone systems they use. Some schools own their telephone networks and paid for them years ago, while others pay monthly for every phone line on campus.
The University of Scranton expects to invest the approximately $200,000 a year it has been spending on dorm phone lines to update its campus cable-TV network and other data services to benefit students, said Jerry DeSanto, vice president for planning and chief information officer.
UC will eliminate landlines — with the exception of a few house phones — from one dormitory this fall on a trial basis and expects eventually to remove them from all residence halls.
But some schools aren't ready to make that leap.
Officials at Towson University in Maryland worry about potential lawsuits if students don't have reliable landline service in their dorm rooms in case of emergency.
"While the money we pay for landlines in each room could be reinvested elsewhere, I don't like the idea of depending solely on a few courtesy phones in hallways," Towson telecommunications analyst Alex Konialian said.
Austin College also is keeping landlines for safety reasons, but it will no longer offer long distance or voice mail on those phone lines. Most students use cell phones for such calls, said telecommunications specialist Sandy Russell.
At the University of Cincinnati, senior Megan Kelly, 27, of Cincinnati, is worried that grades might be withheld if phone bills are unpaid or in dispute, although that's not in the current plan.
Sophomore Chris Weiser, 20, of Dayton, thinks the plan sounds worthwhile but wants more details.
"I'm not sure how many will want to pay extra for the smart phone," he said.