An Urge to Converge

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Combining several commonly separate communication systems into asingle IP network offers a slew of benefits for K-12.

Networking EVEN FOR THOSE who are familiar with the term,the full meaning of a converged network is an intricate one.

Converged networks are based on internet protocol and carry more than just data/internet traffic. Voice was one of the first non-data services overlaid onto IP networks, and the resulting service is known as voice over IP (VoIP). Since then, video has taken its turn. Within the video category, both live and stored video can be accommodated. So, too, can video feeds from surveillance security cameras. Other potential services that have traditionally lived on separate networks and are now finding homes on the IP network include building environmental control systems, security intrusion systems, and LCD projectors. Given that background, a concise definition of converged networks is simply: multipurpose networks.

What’s in It for Us?

The ability to move several types of information across an IP network holds several advantages for K-12:

  1. Reduced cabling. An IP-based system can significantly reduce the amount of cabling necessary in a building. Existing facilities can even choose to salvage nolonger- needed cable for the monetary value of the copper it contains, which is fairly significant these days. (Cautionary note: This is best done during a renovation project; otherwise your still-in-use IP network cabling may be damaged during the salvage effort.)
  2. Greater functionality. Many new IPbased technology systems also provide functionality that simply isn’t available in current systems. Some are discussed below, but additional functions include: LCD projectors that can be turned off via the network to conserve lamp hours; remote monitoring of building environmental systems via the web; the ability to transmit an emergency message to every staff member in the district at one time; and the option to make feeds from video surveillance cameras easily available to your local police.
  3. Lower support costs. Support costs are cut when multiple systems previously requiring many different support personnel can be maintained efficiently by fewer staff.

With such important benefits to be had, why have a large majority of K-12 schools yet to take advantage of combining multiple communications services onto their IP networks? Why have several networks, when one can do the job?

The first answer from many districts would be: We can’t afford it. However, districts with high E-Rate eligibility percentages may find otherwise. Those schools with 80 percent or higher eligibility may well qualify for “internal connections” funding, which can be used for communications and network equipment of just this sort. Also, to be fiscally prudent, districts with growing enrollments should build multipurpose networks into any new building construction projects.

Another frequently given cause for not converging networks is satisfaction with current systems. This is sensible reasoning, but it shouldn’t prevent admins from planning for the day when those systems need to be replaced, at which point they can implement and take advantage of converged networking.

A Vision of Converged

One district that’s using converged networking to streamline its operations is Texas’ Bryan Independent School District, just up the road from Houston. The CTO for BISD, Jennifer Bergland, foresaw some of the coming changes in network technology several years ago and has carefully planned the district’s progress in this area, with the support of the district’s administration and board of trustees. “We’re all facing budget cuts,” Bergland says, “so every way we can share the costs of multiple technologies on one system makes sense to us.”

She also understood that to implement these converged networks effectively, the district had to first build robust IP networks that could carry all that “other” traffic. One of the needed building blocks was a standardized infrastructure cabling system, which the district implemented by groups of buildings over a period of several years.

With the physical infrastructure in place, the district could begin to move existing communications services onto the IP network. BISD started with voice because many of the phone systems across the district were desperately in need of replacement. In 2003, the district bid out and had a VoIP system installed in its 28 (soon to be 30) buildings. It selected Cisco Systems equipment to handle its voice needs, but all telephone manufacturers now offer VoIP systems, with some variety in available features and functions.

The next leap was to VoIP. The district had been a pioneer in instructional video via satellite and had televisions mounted in all classrooms. Bergland, however, envisioned larger display systems (projectors and screens) so students could better make out the images that teachers were integrating into their lessons. And she took note of the fact that not only recorded-broadcast TV programming, but also internet-based video (the district owns a site license for Discovery Education’s Unitedstreaming) was making its way into those plans.

Jennifer BerglandMore and more, [IT is] becoming the central hub of the district. Functions that used to be under other departments are now falling under us.
— Jennifer Bergland, Bryan Independent School District

A bond project for three new buildings and renovations of several others afforded the perfect opportunity to put Bergland’s vision into place. During the process of designing classroom projection systems for the new buildings, when the possibility of using the IP networks to carry video at those sites was suggested, she agreed to give it a try. To the delight of teachers, administrators, and students, IP-based video is now in use in two freshly renovated BISD elementary schools. Not only is the display much larger, each classroom’s system also includes an amplified speaker to help all students hear any audio that accompanies the video, as well as an easy-to-use control system for the teacher, who can turn the projector on and off and change the volume of the audio using clearly labeled wall-mounted buttons (“vanishing” remotes are no longer an issue).

Broadcast television channels are converted to IP from the analog cable-TV signal coming into the buildings. Thus, teachers can tune in to district-approved television stations if there is a live event they want students to see, and display it via the projector on the large screen.

One of the structures enabled by the bond construction project was a new high school. The district’s facilities department asked the technology department about IP-based video surveillance for the new campus. Some vendors had introduced the topic to the facilities group, but the staff was cautious, fearing it would not be as reliable as the proven analog camera system in use at the existing high school.

Bergland understands the fear of change, but also knows the trend is all one-way—toward IP-based systems. So she’s willing to help other departments deal with the new technologies. “More and more, [IT is] becoming the central hub of the district,” she says. “Functions that used to be under other departments are now falling under us.”

With that in mind, the BISD technology department agreed to take on part of the risk and become the support arm for an IP-based video surveillance system. The new system will feature the ability to view feeds from the video cameras from any computer in the district. (Of course, there will be access protections in place to ensure that only those who are authorized to view the video will be able to.) And when an event needs to be reviewed, IP-based video is much easier to search through than videotape; you can specify a time of day and jump right to it. The first of these systems will be installed in the new high school.

Thus, of all the reasons to turn to an IP-based system, increased functionality may produce the most meaningful benefits. And as to the original question posed—“What’s in converged networks for K-12?”—the answer, it turns out, may be as wide and deep as the very definition of the term itself.

Wendy Chretien is a consultant with Elert & Associates, an independenttechnology consulting firm. Shewas previously a K-12 teacher.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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