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Districts Dial Into the Internet to Modernize Phone Systems

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School districts use their computer systems every day for Internet searches and e-mail, but an increasing number of districts are using those same systems to handle their telephone calls, often saving big money in the process.

Some districts are switching to Voice-over-Internet Protocol, or VoIP, systems. But many are finding it still pays to have the more traditional analog lines in place as a backup.

"We can exercise either portion when we need it," says Keith Seher, an information manager for the 10,000-student David Douglas district, in Portland, Ore., which has a hybrid system. "It keeps us flexible."

For years, districts were limited to analog technology, which uses phone lines from traditional telephone carriers that run to every school—and can be costly. VoIP uses the existing infrastructure of computer data lines to run the calls, says Teresa R. Richardson, a practice leader for local government, K-12, and public safety for Avaya, a communications company based in Basking Ridge, N.J.

"You're consolidating the infrastructure to one [system], reducing cost, management, and support time," she says. "You're not supporting wiring infrastructure for phone and data systems."

Lower Phone Bill

Seher estimates his district saved about $70,000 the first year the district used the local area network the district already had in place, instead of local telephone lines. The district introduced Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Shoretel's VoIP system in 2003.

With VoIP, school employees can dial between buildings using just four or five digits, have individual telephone numbers and voice mail, and—with the right "smart" handset—do almost anything they can do with a computer, Richardson says.

"The device becomes intelligent," she says. "It’s not just a telephone to use for voice."

Administrators can use the Internet-based telephone system to automatically send out alerts, reminders, and notifications to staff members and parents, she says, and teachers can look up lunch menus or browse the Internet.

Teachers can also forward their phone calls to their cellphones, if they wish, without giving parents their private numbers, and if moving from class to class or school to school, they can dial into a phone where they may be working so their calls can be routed to them. Voice mails can also be sent automatically to their e-mail addresses.

The Chicago school district has switched mostly to VoIP technology and has seen significant savings , says Peter L. Cosme, an account executive for Mitel Networks Corp., a communications company based in Ottawa, Canada, that helped set up the district’s system. Because the district already had a "highly robust" data network, he says, it was able to combine its data and voice networks.

In most of the Chicago schools, Cosme says, the company was able to eliminate the analog lines. He estimates that the 435,000-student district once had about 16,000 analog lines and that about three-quarters have been scrapped. Katie Zalewski, a telecommunications manager for the Chicago schools says that when the project is fully implemented in about a year, the district will save millions by getting rid of the old phone lines and through lower maintenance costs.

A Hybrid Approach

But some school districts don’t have the wiring capability or the desire to switch all district calls to VoIP at once. Some schools adopt a hybrid system and make changes incrementally as their data networks are updated. Other schools choose hybrid models to have confidence that their phone systems will continue to work all the time.

One concern about VoIP is that if the data system goes down for some reason, the phone system goes down as well. That's why many schools continue to have at least one analog line running into the building. With that arrangement, school officials would be able to continue making limited calls.

In Oregon's David Douglas district, employees use VoIP for nearly all intra-district phone calls, but about 80 percent of the telephones used in the district are analog phones, not Internet phones, Seher says.

The reason is that analog phones can cost only about $12 each, compared with $200 or so for their smart counterparts. The district has decided that particularly in classrooms, where phones may need to be replaced often, it’s better to go with the older versions, though they don't have the same repertoire of functions.

In addition, the school district backs up its VoIP system with a limited number of traditional lines going to schools.

"If we're disconnected from the network, parents still have full access, though they’d probably get more busy signals," Seher says. "You have to have confidence in the system that you can manage it and keep it operating nearly 100 percent of the time."

Connecting Cellphones

One of the real advantages of the VoIP system is maintenance, Seher says. The David Douglas district’s old, analog system was so antiquated that an outside company had to manage it. Now the district is in control of the equipment and can unbolt and switch mechanisms with ease.

"We used to wait two or three weeks to get a phone installed," Seher says. "Now we can do a whole site ourselves overnight."

While VoIP systems are currently the growing trend, Overland Park, Kan.-based Sprint is launching a new, wireless version of VoIP that it believes will work better for schools. Since employees in school districts tend to move around, there often are far more desk sets in a district than people need, says Michael M. Flood, Sprint’s national manager for K-12 vertical, who oversees some products aimed at the K-12 market.

"This new system would connect to cellphones, so a cellphone becomes equal to a desk set, with school voice mail, call transfer and four- or five-digit dialing between schools," Flood says. The intent would be for a district to use Sprint cellphones, but the system would likely work with a teacher’s individual cellphone as well, he says.

By logging in and out of the district telephone system, teachers, for example, could use their cellphones for work but retain them for personal use.

So far, Sprint hasn't had any districts sign up for the mostly wireless system, but company officials argue that it's the wave of the future.

"Why are those desk sets there,” Flood says, “if the user is only going to be at that desk for 20 percent of the day?"

Vol. 02, Issue 03

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