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ETH Life - wissen was laeuft ETH Life - wissen was laeuft

ETH - Eidgenoessische Technische Hochschule Zuerich - Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich
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Published: 01.06.2006, 06:00
Modified: 31.05.2006, 20:42
Launch of the ETH communications platform "PolyPhone"
A network for life

ETH Zurich has created a new communications platform. With "PolyPhone", ETH students and staff can be contacted anywhere, any time by video link, voice or text message. "ETH Life" tested the world premiere version.

Jakob Lindenmeyer

"I would like to make the students and staff at ETH feel proud to be part of this university", replied ETH President Ernst Hafen during an interview on the " ETH 2020 Future Process " (1), in answer to a question about how he would like to give a new impetus to ETH communications. (2) On 19 May , Armin Brunner, Head of Communications, and project manager for PolyPhone and Andreas Dudler, Director of IT Services, presented a possible tool for achieving this goal (see text box).

More than just Internet telephony

PolyPhone consists primarily of a network infrastructure and a software client for voice and video telephony and instant messaging, specially developed for ETH. In addition, whether certain selected partners are connected is displayed in a buddy list. The technical principles and the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) have already been the subject of a previous "ETH Life" article on the PolyPhone project.(3) Unlike the established Internet telephony, already widely used today in private homes, the innovative vision of the "PolyPhone" project is that not only does it allow Internet communication to be non-location-dependent, but the communication options are also extended in terms of time.

Taking a network of contacts with you

"We want people to take their social networks from their periods of study out into the world", says project manager Brunner. "When an employee or a student leaves ETH, they should be able to take their whole network of contacts with them, in a virtual sense, for their entire subsequent career, by using the lifetime PolyPhone identification number." The idea is that ETH will extend its campus to anywhere where its present and former students and employees are located. Until the autumn of this year, PolyPhone is still running as a pilot project, free of charge for all ETH students and staff. After that, Brunner intends to extend the service to all former ETH students and employees.

"Cool" numbers in short supply

At the start of this pilot phase, "ETH Life" attempted a self-test. How to register your telephone number is well documented, but the search for an easily memorable number proved more difficult. The set prefix is "044 658", then the last four digits can be freely selected. However, all the "cool" combinations seem to have already been taken. No wonder, because over 1000 users have already registered in the first few weeks. The real reason, though, is probably that even before the system went live, Brunner reserved all the number combinations that trip off the tongue readily and all sequences of numbers for VIPs and special projects.

A decision for life

The choice of number should not be underestimated. It is supposed to be valid for life, and go everywhere with you. You cannot be guaranteed to have the same as your internal ETH extension number, for the rule is "first come - first served". Since the PolyPhone number is intended to remain in use even after your time at ETH, something similar to your home phone number may be a sensible alternative. After a dozen unsuccessful attempts with "cool" number combinations, the author has opted for this alternative, with 2266.


The elegant design of the PolyPhone software client: top left, the video picture of the caller (large) and the author’s own picture (small), below that the instant messages and to the right the keypad for dialling. large

Easy installation

Installing the software client for Internet telephony and the camera caused no problems. The first calls to internal phones and PolyPhone numbers worked, but there was no picture. Only reinstalling the client solved that problem. However, despite the high bandwidth within ETH, the video picture is still irritatingly delayed compared with the sound. For home reception, project manager Brunner recommends an upstream bandwidth of at least 128 kbps for voice calls, and double that for video telephony .

Still unsatisfactory voice quality

Nevertheless, even at ETH, some calls are more reminiscent of poor mobile phone reception than landline telephony: speech delays, background noise and interrupted calls. One is also unsure how to behave in front of the camera. Although the tester, as recommended by video conference specialists (4), selected a smart outfit for the test instead of his usual colourful, patterned clothes, he found the face of the person he was talking to irritating and his own even more so.

Important step forward

Although the new service still needs improving in some ways, in general it was very impressive. For example, the dial-out function needs improving – calling external telephone networks at your own expense. In the paperwork, PolyPhone recommends two external service carriers, but, partly for legal reasons, users have to go to the trouble of finding out the details for themselves. For example that 10787 only charges one third of the per minute rate of the other provider. Or that – depending on the method of payment – it can take several days before the dial-out is activated at all. In this regard, legally independent student associations could be of assistance in providing additional information.

How the quality and stability of PolyPhone will develop if user numbers multiply will no doubt become apparent over the coming weeks. However, by providing an option for communicating and cooperating, regardless of time and place, PolyPhone has laid an important foundation for ETH in the future.

Website for the project "PolyPhone – Internet telephony and more for the ETH community":

(1) Weblog on the "ETH 2020 Future Process":
(2) "ETH Life" interview with Ernst Hafen on the "ETH 2020Future Process":
(3) The first "ETH Life" article on the "PolyPhone" project:
(4) NET recommendations on how to behave in front of the camera:

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