VoIP to the Rescue

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Faced with the challenges hampering school communications nationwide, three districts forge into the 21st century with Web-based telephony.

DON’T LOOK NOW, but Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, is everywhere. The technology lets users make and receive phone calls over the Internet, transporting voice traffic alongside data traffic such as instant messages (IMs) and e-mail. While the number of consumer customers using VoIP increases every week, the technology is finding its way into K-12 education as well. In the last few years, VoIP has helped many school districts save big bucks on phone charges and administrative costs, as well as improve communications across the board. In three districts in particular, Clark County School District (NV), David Douglas School District (OR), and Saugus Union School District (CA), the technology has revolutionized telecom strategies, inspiring flexibility, creativity, and connectivity in ways technologists never dreamed. These are their stories.

Staying in Touch
Voice Over IP Feature It’s no secret that when parents get involved in their children’s education, the kids do better in school. Such involvement depends largely on direct communication between parents and teachers about students’ progress. This communication, however, can be difficult to achieve. Such was the case at David Douglas School District (DDSD) in Portland, OR. For years, DDSD teachers shared phones in school offices to make outbound calls, and relied upon handwritten messages from office staff for the incoming calls they missed. Unfortunately, this strategy overworked staff members, forced teachers to leave their classrooms to make calls, and created delays in connecting with parents. Simply put, it didn’t work.

In 2001, frustrations with this system led to a call for widespread improvements, and Information Systems Manager Keith Seher responded immediately. Seher looked first into expanding the district’s existing telecom infrastructure by installing new phone jacks in each classroom, but this option proved to be far too expensive. He then investigated combining the district’s existing but disparate Centrex phone networks into one. Again, this move was seen as too costly. Finally, Seher turned to Structured Communication Systems (SCS; www.structured.com), a local technology integrator, which suggested VoIP. Though skeptical at first about the technology’s performance, Seher tried it and immediately approved the switch.

“I had heard all of these great things about VoIP, but had never tried it for myself,” he says, looking back. “When it became clear to me that with minimal improvements to our infrastructure quality wouldn’t be an issue, I was ready to go for it.”

The conversion began in 2002 at a mothballed elementary school that the district refurbished and reopened to manage unexpected growth. Over the course of two weeks, SCS installed an IP telephony system from ShoreTel (www. shoretel.com) that consisted of a central call server and about 60 phones. After success with this first system, SCS installed another ShoreTel system in a second school. Then, over the course of the next 12 months, the integrator rolled out VoIP systems at 13 other schools and at the district’s transportation and maintenance locations, providing district technologists with training on how to support and maintain the system all the while.

This system combines IP telephony and traditional telephone lines, otherwise known as POTS (plain old telephone system) lines. While the system runs VoIP between switches, the connection from the switch to the phone remains analog. This setup enables DDSD to use existing analog phones, thereby keeping costs down. Additionally, the district kept its existing POTS numbers for inbound calling, which meant staff members and parents did not have to learn any new numbers. As Seher explains, these POTS lines also serve for backup outbound calling in the event of emergencies, if the IP system goes down, or if one particular location is disconnected from the core network.

On paper, the biggest benefit of the new system was cost savings. DDSD had been spending $75,000 a year for maintenance on its PBX system, while SCS agreed to support the new ShoreTel system for $30,000. In practice, however, the system transformed an even more important part of district life: the communication between parents and teachers. By the time the implementation was finished in 2004, DDSD had installed a VoIP phone in every classroom, providing teachers with features such as e-mail-based voicemail (instead of handwritten messages) and daily audio bulletins delivered by phone. At some schools, DDSD even has assigned teachers with their own fourdigit extensions.

“Whereas in the past teachers had to go to the office to make a call, now their extension follows them, and they can make calls from whatever classroom they use,” says Seher. “You can’t get more connected than that.”

Thinking Big
The local school board’s desire to put a phone in every classroom is what drove a broad-sweeping VoIP implementation in Nevada’s Clark County School District (CCSD), which encompasses the city of Las Vegas and all of its surrounding towns. Covering more than 300 schools and other educational facilities, the district has an enrollment that exceeds 295,000 students and employs nearly 30,000 teachers, administrators, and support personnel. In all, the district rolled out a wide area network (WAN) and a VoIP network with more than 22,000 phones. While the VoIP part of the implementation stands as one of the largest on record in K-12, it also has helped administrators save some serious cash along the way.

Before CCSD moved toward VoIP, the district invested in a brand-new Gigabit Ethernet WAN designed specifically to speed computing over a district that spanned hundreds of miles. Philip Brody, the district’s assistant superintendent and CTO, had researched IP telephony for years, and he knew that it was critical for the district to set up a highbandwidth network before it forked over the money for VoIP. With this in mind, and working with technology integrator SAIC (www.saic.com), Brody set out in 2001 to buy and install all of the servers, switches, and routers necessary to make the WAN a reality. Nearly $17 million later, the WAN was ready for battle-testing.

That testing came in the form of VoIP, an effort that started in 2003. Much like Seher at DDSD, Clark County officials looked into rewiring every classroom, but opted for VoIP when officials saw just how expensive additional wires would be. As these officials met with consultants to investigate their options, they realized they could save thousands of dollars on maintenance and still manage to replace the bulk of the district’s phone system. According to Brody, after a lengthy request for proposals process, the winning option came in the form of a cooperative solution from Alcatel (www.alcatel.com) and Verizon (www.verizon.com).

“Once we had the WAN, we knew there were a lot of ways to skin the proverbial [telephony] cat,” Brody says of the district’s search for a new take on telephony. “How ironic was it that, for us, the ‘killer app’ was a 120-year-old technology delivered over the Internet?”

With the WAN in place, laying the foundation for the VoIP system was no challenge at all for CCSD. Buying the phones, however, was another story entirely. Naturally, CCSD didn’t purchase all 22,000 phones at once. Instead, the district set up a purchasing plan with Alcatel to buy 600 to 700 phones a month. Brody says the district has purchased products on this schedule for the last 30 months, and plans to continue at this pace for at least another six months. In all, he adds, the VoIP implementation has cost approximately $13 million so far, and should reach about $15 million overall, once all of the phones have been purchased and installed.

While Brody says he can’t estimate how much money VoIP will save the district on long distance, he admits that some of the biggest cost savings have come in the form of maintenance and support. In the past, when a school or facility experienced difficulty with a phone, the district had to dispatch its own phone technicians to troubleshoot or contract with a local company for help. Now, however, Brody says that since all phone traffic goes over the IP and all district IT staffers are trained for repairs on the WAN, maintenance is effected more quickly and more affordably than ever before, which frees up hundreds of thousands of dollars for other purchases.

“One of the reasons this has worked so well is because our internal staff has essentially taken responsibility for everything,” he says. “Not only has this saved us a ton of money, but the intangibles of our own people looking at this and saying, ‘We can do it, it’s ours’ pays all sorts of dividends.”

STRIKE UP THE BANDWIDTH
SOMETIMES EVEN A WELL-CONCEIVED VOIP IMPLEMENTATION FALLS FLAT ON ITS FACE— IF IT LACKS THE BACKBONE TO WORK PROPERLY.

KLAUS HILLMAN, director of Converged Solutions at Source Inc. (www.source.com), a technology integrator in Dallas, TX, explains that one of the biggest pitfalls for schools that want VoIP is a network which works for Web surfing but isn’t strong enough to support much more.

“For many schools, deploying VoIP isn’t as simple as deploying other network applications, for one major reason: bandwidth,” he says. “Without the proper routing and switching equipment, the quality of your calls will suffer dramatically.”

In the industry, this phenomenon is known as Quality of Service, or QoS. The QoS necessary for VoIP calls varies widely depending on the number of users on a network, but normally, any dedicated connection with bandwidth of at least 10MB per second supports the technology sufficiently. Shared connections with greater bandwidth will work well, too. According to Hillman, weaker connections will still support VoIP—but badly. He likens this phenomenon to talking with someone on a cell phone when you’re in an area with spotty coverage: The voice wavers, the connection is choppy, and the end result is a lot of gibberish.

“Generally, we try to make it pretty clear to our customers that there’s no point to investing in VoIP unless you can meet the minimum bandwidth requirements for high-quality calls,” says Hillman. “The very last thing you want to do is spend tens of thousands of dollars on this technology, then find out you can’t use it the way it’s supposed to be used.”

The best way to see what kind of bandwidth your network supports is to perform a network assessment. School districts that employ knowledgeable IT staffers can do this on their own; for others, organizations such as Hillman’s, as well as other solution providers and technology integrators, perform assessments for a small fee.

Productivity Train
Some schools install VoIP to cut down on longdistance costs. At Saugus Union School District (SUSD) in Santa Clarita, CA, however, technology offi- cials recently turned to the technology for other reasons— to increase productivity and flexibility across the board. SUSD dived into VoIP in earnest back in 2003, with an implementation of 15 call managers and more than 700 phones from 3Com (www.3com.com). Once connected to the school district’s WAN, the phones provided instantaneous communication between 14 schools and a maintenance facility, all with the push of a three-digit extension. The price tag: $5 million, most of which was financed by a public bond. SUSD saved money on the implementation by installing almost all of the phones with in-house technicians. Once the installation was complete, Jim Klein, director of Information Services, had his staff conduct training sessions with teachers and staff members to make sure everyone knew how to use the new system. Klein says the response to this hand-holding was overwhelmingly positive; within days, teachers and other users were raving about the ability to get voicemail delivered to their e-mail accounts, and were customizing other features on their phones such as automatic dial, call forwarding, and intercom calling.

“Our primary interest was the ease of configuration,” says Klein. “It was a night-and-day difference from our old [PBX-based] system in terms of manageability, and that’s something that really resonated with our teachers and other users.”

Surprisingly, one of the biggest challenges for SUSD was the heat generated by all of the new equipment. As Klein explains it, call managers who made up the heart of the new system required power switches, and those call managers required backup batteries in the event of a power outage. All of these items made the server room pretty hot, and the district was forced to invest in heavy-duty air conditioning units to keep the room cool and prevent meltdowns. Luckily, the district came in under budget on its initial purchases, so Klein was able to invest in portable air conditioners. With these units, the district was able to bring the overheating problem under control quickly.

Moving forward, Klein anticipates that his next big push will be to increase flexibility by expanding VoIP into the wireless arena. Already, SUSD has invested in high-bandwidth access points from 3Com to facilitate wireless childcare sites, and locations where people have to be mobile. When the district was building its newest school, Klein set up wireless VoIP phones in the office so staff members could work before the rest of the school was complete. Down the road, this approach could become the norm: He envisions a setup where teachers and staff members rely on wireless VoIP so colleagues or parents can reach them when they’re outside the classroom.

“Talk about flexibility: In my personal utopia, we’d have wireless handsets that use VoIP but also double as regular old cellular phones,” Klein says. “Could it happen? Maybe someday. But as of now, I’d say it’s a long way off.”

VOIP: WHAT IS IT?
BREAKING DOWN THE BREAKTHROUGH TECHNOLOGY THAT SENDS VOICE COMMUNICATIONS OVER THE INTERNET.

FOR THOSE WHO are not completely familiar with VoIP, the technology is a nearly instantaneous way of taking voice communications, breaking them down into tiny “packets,” and sending those packets alongside data over the Internet. Once this process occurs, the voice packets are treated like any other piece of data—e-mail,Web pages, or the text from an IM chat. Once the packets have reached their destination, they’re separated from the data and reassembled to form a real-time streaming audio file. While traditional calls require a separate circuit (or phone number) for each individual user, VoIP calls share space on the network with everything else and are routed according to an IP address.

With VoIP, the same physical cable plant that is providing data access to classrooms also can be used to deploy phones. This saves on wiring costs and streamlines the maintenance of cabling systems. Similarly, a single logical system can be distributed across all school campuses and facilities. This eases system administration and management, and enables more efficient sharing of specialists, receptionists, and other human resources. Voicemail and other advanced telephony features then can be deployed to everyone at little or no incremental cost, greatly enhancing communication. And by putting a VoIP infrastructure in place, schools are also setting the stage for using multimedia in distance learning.

 

Jacob Milner is a freelance writer who writes frequently on the subjects of technology and education.

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.

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