Mass High Tech - Texting systems eyed for state college campuses
By Catherine Williams -
State officials are weighing technological options as they mobilize in support of installing a new, emergency wireless text-messaging system to help protect the 400,000 people living and working on Massachusetts' 29 public university and college campuses.
The goal is to select one wireless text messaging company to get the job done, and in time to go live in September, say state officials. And while there has been plenty of interest for what is initially pegged as a two-year installation and services contract, most of the companies expressing interest are from outside of New England.
The idea is to wirelessly communicate vital information instantly, mainly to cell phones, in the event of an emergency. The sense of urgency was prompted here and elsewhere by the debated failure of the e-mail notification system used at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University on April 16, when 32 people were shot dead by a lone gunman on a rampage.
But it's not yet clear how much such a system would cost to install and maintain in the Bay State, or who would foot the bill. Patricia Plummer, chancellor of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, estimates the cost of text-messaging services alone at $200,000 annually, or 50 cents for each of the 400,000 people associated with the state's school system.
A $250,000 earmark for emergency messaging appeared earlier this month in the state Senate version of the 2008 budget, but has yet to be approved. The project could also be funded with the help of a Massachusetts Information Technology Division bond, said Plummer and David Gray, UMass CIO and vice president of information technology.
"We're going to need more than ($250,000) to get it across the entire public education system," said Gray.
A bond proposal, said Gray, is in the works. Total cost estimates have yet to be determined.
Meanwhile, some schools, such as Fitchburg State College and Mount Wachusett Community College, have systems up and running. UMass Lowell began piloting a cellular text-messaging system last fall, said Gray, but cautions against seeing that as the only solution.
"We shouldn't be reliant on any single channel of communication," Gray said.
Bridgewater State College installed a Honeywell International Inc. cellular text and voice mail messaging system last year for its 12,000 person community, said Bill Davis, Bridgewater's vice president of administration, finance and technology. The cost is $1 to $2 per registered recipient, per year, said Davis.
Both Bridgewater and UMass plan to integrate text-messaging systems with other systems. In the private sector, Boston University last week unveiled plans to launch a web-based emergency messaging system this fall using technology built by Send Word Now Communications Inc., based in New York.
Another New York-based tech firm, Rave Wireless Inc., along with New Jersey-based companies Verizon Wireless and Honeywell have all expressed interest in competing for the state's business, said Gray.
Local companies that could benefit from the business include Boston-based MobileSphere Inc., which specializes in web-to-mobile simple messaging service. The company is already serving MIT and Wellesley College, said Gavin Macomber, MobileSphere's executive vice president and co-founder. Newburyport-based Context Connect LLC, meanwhile, makes technology that sends messages via cell phone, e-mail, voice mail, and fax.
State officials say they're working to open up the bidding process as soon as possible.