Traci Price doesn't have to look for phone messages on her dorm room door. She doesn't have to run to answer the hall phone, only to find the call is for another student.
That's because Price, like all resident students at the University of Maryland at College Park, has a voice mail system hooked up to the phone in her room.
Maryland is the first university known to have a telecommunications system that, among other things, provides its students with phones and voice mail systems in their rooms. Completed in August, the $32.4 million system has created more than 17,000 new telephone connections.
The system is a prime example of what anyone who uses a phone already knows -- more and more operators and receptionists are being replaced by telecommunications systems.
Though systems vary, a typical one might include an automated attendant -- a computerized voice that directs calls to a specific extension or a live operator -- and a voice mail system.
Voice mail allows a caller to leave a recorded message voice in the called party's "mailbox." While similar to a telephone answering machine, voice mailboxes can be implemented much more effectively on large telephone systems and are more flexible.
A voice mail message can be as long and as detailed as the caller wants. The called party can retrieve messages from any touch-tone phone, and there are obvious benefits to eliminating written messages in the workplace or in schools.
Both students and professors at the University of Maryland are reaping the benefits of the new voice mail system, according to Jonathan Rood, director of telecommunications services for the university.
"The classic problem is that the faculty members are out teaching and students are in class," he says. "You spend more time out of your room than in it."
The system is centered in a new Telecommunications Building, and links the university's 300 buildings. In addition to voice mail, the system's features include programmable dialing and conference calls. All of the university's wiring has been replaced with fiber optic cable, which is capable of carrying far more information than conventional cables. And since the university owns the system, Rood says, it is totally self-contained.
"We can provide department installation, construction, electrical engineering, repairs, internal order processing and staff for the help desk ourselves without the need for technicians or AT&T or C&P. And that spells savings for the university."
Though the system still has a few bugs, "it was received better than I expected," Rood says. "One student was talking and said that this new system makes him feel like a CEO of a corporation. We're getting calls every week from universities that are looking into this system."
Over 7,000 students and 5,000 faculty members now have voice mail systems on their phones at Maryland.
"It's changed the way people function," Rood says.
According to a study by the North American Telecommunications Association in Washington, annual sales of voice processing systems rose from slightly over 7,000 units valued at $315 million in 1987 to 12,396 units valued at $500 million in 1988. Average prices of the systems have fallen by 11 percent per year.
Like other business phone systems, automated attendants and voice mail systems are sold through a variety of channels, from giant corporations like AT&T to other manufacturers and smaller authorized distributors. Distributors make up about 45 percent of manufacturer sales, according to the Telecommunications Association.
But despite the growing popularity of automated systems, an improperly installed telecommunications system can be more of a hindrance than a help to a company that doesn't do its homework.
Disgruntled customers, tired of being aimlessly transferred, forced to talk to machines or disconnected completely, might decide to take their business to a company where phones are answered by live receptionists.
"But part of the frustration on the part of customers has a lot to do with general resistance to talking to a machine, or really utilizing a machine," says Eric Nelson, director of marketing research for the North American Telecommunications Association.
"I get frustrated sometimes too . . . but that level of frustration is only exceeded by talking to an incompetent human, or a human who puts me on hold for a half hour while she's filtering other
calls," he says.
"You have to understand your customer," says Barry Brill, executive vice president of Gaylon Communication Systems, an Owings Mills-based company that installs communications systems.
"And you need to be careful to not buy too small a system," he adds. "There are two factors -- the number of simultaneous calls [the system] will process, and how many hours of storage or recording time each unit has . . . it is expensive technology. Companies tend to buy less than they actually need."