Making IP Telephony Affordable for the Iowa City Community School District

For several years, the Iowa City Community School District grappled with a way to equip every classroom with a telephone. The district could not afford the estimated $1 million to $1.5 million in capital expenditures for telephone wiring, not to mention the necessary operating funds for ongoing, monthly utility costs and service contracts. The district had a technology plan in place, but the district could not generate more money to pay for such additions. Capital funds for public schools are restricted to specific uses. General operating monies are used to hire teachers and pay for utilities and other ongoing expenses.

Associate Superintendent Jerald Palmer and SchoolNet Specialist Troy Wentzien recognized the need to provide expanded access to voice communication for faculty and staff in order to operate more efficiently. With the Internet becoming increasingly more important as a teaching tool, they decided to make data communication a priority, even with their limited resources. But while every classroom in the district had a computer with Internet access by 1995, a voice communication system remained an issue. Over the past five years, two new elementary schools were built with Internet access and telephones in every classroom. However, the separate data and phone lines proved extremely costly. Adding phones this way for the 22 remaining school buildings was not an option. Instead, Palmer explored the possibility of merging the data and voice technologies.

A Cost-Effective Solution

In 1999, Computer Solutions, the district's network consulting partner for more than a decade, presented Palmer and Wentzien with a cost-effective solution: IP telephony. IP telephony is the process of digitizing voice and sending a call over a data network, essentially using computer lines instead of separate phone lines. Computer Solutions demonstrated IP telephony for Palmer and Wentzien. They looked at two options: Cisco's soft phone, a phone image that appears on a computer screen; and the hard phone, or handset telephone, which plugs into a computer and shares the same cable.

Palmer allocated the estimated $500,000 in capital expenditures - approximately a third of the cost of installing a traditional phone system -for a handset phone system from Cisco, the leading provider of voice-over IP, and entered into a contract with Computer Solutions.

Computer Solutions installed 1,100 phones in all 24 of the district's buildings, a large installation of IP telephony for the Midwest. The Iowa City Community School District had a phone in every classroom within two months. "If there was a computer there, there was a phone," says Palmer of the installation. "It was that easy, but it's all very dependent on their expertise with Computer Solutions."

The central administration and technology center buildings were used in the pilot stage, allowing Computer Solutions to fine-tune the system parameters before turning on the system in all 24 buildings. The district's main number gets nearly 100 phone calls per hour, proving the system is able to support a high call volume. By the end of the 2000-2001 school year, every classroom was operational.

The district's old system supported around 450 phones and used about 170 phone lines, whereas now with the IP telephony system, calls placed outside the district utilize only 46 centrally located phone lines shared by all the buildings. Intradistrict calls do not require public phone lines, which helps alleviate the busy signals that were so prevalent with the old system.

In-House Maintenance

IP telephony allows Wentzien and the district's small technology department to manage both telephone and computer issues. "I work for efficiency, whether it's in terms of dollars or time," says Wentzien. "There's no other way we would've been able to put in and manage a system like this without having to outsource it all."

Wentzien is able to program the phones from his desktop using a Web browser such as Internet Explorer, making it easy to add additional users. "Usually if you want ease, it costs more," says Wentzien. "I'm saving the district money by maintaining the system in-house. Our recurring costs were cut in half because we used to have separate voice and data lines. There was so much duplication of services in wiring for room changes. It was a pretty good feat to coordinate all that with an outside service provider and pay them. Now we do it all," he says.

After completing the basic installation, a training effort was initiated. As a time- and money-saving option, the district opted for a "train the trainer" program. Computer Solutions determined the appropriate method for training key district personnel, who, in turn, were responsible for training the rest of the staff.

On-the-Job Security and Communication

Esther Retish, who teaches English as a second language in a temporary building for Iowa City schools, says having a telephone in her classroom has made a big difference in the way she is able to do her job. "It is a very, very important communication tool for me, as well as a safety feature," says Retish. "It allows me to be connected to the outside world."

The ability to call 911 or the building office gives teachers on-the-job security. On a daily basis, the ability to call each other directly to announce a student's late departure from class allows teachers to operate more efficiently. Teachers can also make better use of planning periods because both telephones and available phone lines are readily accessible for conducting business, such as scheduling field trips or calling parents. Having the ability to dial a staff member directly is also a noticeable relief to office receptionists, who otherwise would have to go through several people to locate the appropriate person.

Future additions to the district's phone system may include integrated messaging and a corporate directory. Integrated messaging allows users to retrieve all of their messages from the computer, including voice mail and e-mail. An electronic corporate directory enables callers to spell a name on the phone to look up a staff member's phone number.

"I think it would be very shortsighted if one was doing a change like this with the old technology," says Palmer. "I felt that with the quality of Cisco, and Computer Solutions as the vendor, the risks were minimal. You can increase the number of people with access to voice communication, and you're not increasing your continuing cost - that is the single biggest advantage."

How IP Telephony Works:

-Network/computer cable is used when installing new wire to a building or room.

- Phones and computers are all connected to the same network (the same cable).

- When a call is placed, network equipment tracks the voice and data on the cable and keeps them separate.

- A few standard phone lines are centrally shared for calls going outside of the organization's network.

- Calls can be made between locations (inside the network) without using phone lines at all, thus reducing the recurring costs.

Contact Information
Computer Solutions, Ltd.
Iowa City, IA
(319) 351-7549

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.

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