SPECIAL SECTION: SCHOOL CIO
Keeping VoIP from being the Wrong Number
Digital phones can save money for schools but there are many pitfalls.
By Burain Nadeau
In 2004, when Gary L. Allen was considering
different approaches for replacing
the Amarillo Independent School
District's antiquated phone system, he
had a dilemma. The goal was to expand
the features that the district's phones
were capable of while taking advantage
of its digital infrastructure and cutting
costs. But, should he buy the latest
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)
equipment for AISD or have a company
provide digital phone service?
He's not alone. Many districts consider
VoIP for connecting its schools and
are unsure which way to go. One of the
most powerful digital technologies for
education, VoIP can reduce communication
costs by routing calls over a district's
internal network rather than the more
expensive phone network.
Instead of buying the equipment from
the usual VoIP (pronounced voy-P)
suspects, he went to Austin, Texas-based
Trillion, which specializes in providing
school phone services. "Early on, I came
to the realization that it cost about the
same over five years to have a company
do everything for a monthly fee,"
explains Allen, who is the AISD's chief
technology officer. "The big pay off was
that there was no money needed up
front and they did it all."
Today, the district's 56 schools and
facilities are digitally connected and
have an array of features that couldn't
be delivered with the district's analog
network. More to the point, AISD is
saving bundles of cash.
ANSWERING THE CALL
"Using VoIP is one of the best ways
to cut costs and bring communications
into the 21-st century," offers Matthias
Machowinski, directing analyst for
enterprise voice and data at market
analysis firm Infonetics. "Above all," he
adds, "using VoIP involves a new way of
looking at phones."
It's not as simple as it seems. "When
you get down to the details, VoIP for a
school can be tough to get it all right,"
explains Renaye Thornborrow, vice
president of marketing at Trillion. "There
are many places that a district can go
wrong and make matters worse."
While a district can purchase VoIP
hardware from 3Com, Cisco, Siemens,
Mitel or some of the other usual suspects,
it takes skill and experience to
design, tune, and monitor it so that every
call goes through with excellent audio.
"The biggest mistake that schools make
is thinking of VoIP as hardware and not
as a service," adds Thornborrow.
Trillion delivered on all aspects of
AISD's new phone network, from initial
design, through installation and start-up
to hour-by-hour monitoring and optimization.
Unlike buying hardware, the typical
district pays a monthly fee for everything,
which is generally about $20 per phone.
But, that amount can be reduced with ERate
subsidies. Last year, the FCC paid out
$2.5 billion in E-Rate funds, which is collected
from taxes on phone bills.
There's no guarantee how much—if
any—E-Rate money a district will get, but
VoIP services are classified as Priority 1
and get higher subsidies than hardware
purchases, which are classified as Priority
2. For some districts, E-Rate pays threequarters
or more of their phone costs.
The savings add up quickly. Four
years ago, AISD was paying between $10
and $12 each for the 2,200 AT&T Centrex
phone lines that connected its buildings.
Trillion estimated that the district would
lower its bills by at least $25,000 a year.
CHEAP TO KEEP
Fast forward to today and Allen
says that the savings actually turned
out to be higher. With E-Rate funds, the
VoIP service costs $3 a phone per
month. According to Allen, "It's a bargain
that can't be beat."
That's just the start. All the names
and numbers of teachers, administrators,
and staff are available online, so
there's no need for a printed directory
that's out of date the moment it's printed.
Today, the phone network's digital
directory is up to date and saves
another $25,000 a year.
The phones themselves are a step
forward. Instead of old-school handsets,
digital service adds a multitude of
school-friendly features, like easy
transfers and the ability to not interrupt
a class. "A digital phone is like having a
mini-computer on the desktop," adds
Infonetics' Machowinski. Some organizations
use digital handsets for broadcasting
announcements, he adds. "It
can be an intercom or a message can
be scrolled across its screen."
To save money, Amarillo decided to
put phones only in high need areas, such
as special education rooms, department
head's offices and meeting areas. While
the district's 1,200 digital handsets can
tap directly into the power of the VoIP
network, the district is reusing about
1,800 old analog phones. "They were a
bridge between the old and the new,"
adds Allen. "You get all the features of
the digital phones through Call Manager."
Trillion supplies ShoreTel's Call
Manager software so that a phone message
from a parent can be picked up on
any phone in the district, the teacher's
computer, or even at home on a PC.
Schools can use the program to schedule
when the phones are active to save
on power and reduce phone pranks.
Because its phone traffic now travels
on its digital infrastructure, a sturdy
wide-area network is an absolute
requirement of building a reliable VoIP
system. Even after everything is set up,
there needs to be continual monitoring
to make sure that every call is getting
through loud and clear. That's where
Trillion's Austin Network Operations
Center comes in.
"It looks like mission control with
screens everywhere," explains Marty
Ortiz, Trillion's director of professional
services. "We continually test the district's
infrastructure, let them know if
there are any problems and perform
remote repairs when we can."
Some schools make the mistake of
using VoIP for every call. "Currently, the
Internet can't provide the quality and
reliability for external calls," offers
Trillion's Thornborrow. "VoIP works
best for calls on a district's network."
This typically accounts for about 80
percent a district's calls.
While calls from a classroom to the district
office or maintenance shop will be all
digital and travel on the network, outside
calls to parents will start out digital and
then go on the public phone network. As
a result, a school will still need traditional
phone lines, only fewer of them.
What has been the reaction among
Amarillo's 2,500 teachers to the new
phones? "They love the new phones
and all they can do. This was absolutely
worth the effort," says Allen.
While there are limited choices
when it comes to a traditional
phone network, VoIP is an area
where there are literally hundreds
of vendors out here fighting for
your business. Here are some of
the top providers.
The originator of the Ethernet
protocol, 3Com has a dozen
different Internet telephony
platforms for small, medium, and
Based in Austin, Trillion provides
phone services exclusively to
schools on a monthly basis and uses
ShoreTel hardware and software.
Probably the largest VoIP hardware
vendor, Cisco has a wide
range of hardware and software
that emphasizes the convergence
of voice, video, and data.
The company's HiPath VoIP
platform has been used in many
schools and campuses.
Mitel's digital phones cover the
gamut of needs from simple handsets
to the equivalent of desktop
By Matt Bolch
For the school CIO, safeguarding students
and facilities is as much a part of
the job description as keeping the data
networks running and the servers protected
from hackers. Here's how two
districts of different sizes secured their
The fourth-largest school district in the
country looked to security measures
used in Israel and the Big Apple before
selecting an intelligent video surveillance
system developed by Phoenix IVS that
has shown impressive results so far.
Luis Garcia, project manager for the
system's capital task force, says the 400-
site, 385,000-student system piloted a
number of similar products before trying
Phoenix IVS at Miami Northwestern
Senior High School. The school already
had 120 cameras placed around the building,
but watching all of those images can
become hypnotic for safety personnel,
causing them to miss incidents.
By employing an intelligent video
solution, parameters can be set up that
sound alerts when certain situations
occur, resulting in 24/7 surveillance for
A pilot project during the 2007-1008
school year showed a 34 percent drop in
the 19 serious incident types categorized
by the system's police force.
Selected results include a 62
percent drop in aggravated
assault; a 72 percent decrease
in aggravated battery; a 44 percent
decline in simple battery;
a reduction by half in robbery;
and a 72 percent drop
in weapon-related incidents.
Garcia, who's been with
the district for 14 years, says the system
cost about $30,000 and worked
exactly as advertised. Like many school
districts, the Miami-Dade County system
is facing monetary constraints but plans
to roll the system out to every high
school in the next year or two, followed
by middle schools and select elementary
schools, based on the number of incident
reports at each facility. Every high school
and middle school already employs surveillance
cameras, as do 40 of the systems
200 elementary schools, making
installation of the Phoenix IVS system
more cost-effective. "I had thought
about pulling the system out after the
pilot, but the principal, faculty members,
and police begged me to keep it," Garcia
says. "We've been very happy with the
Taos Municipal Schools
Even after Robert Spitz caught a student
on camera stealing a master key
from his office, the then-superintendent
and board of Taos
Municipal Schools (NM)
declined to approve the purchase
of IP cameras for district
Fast forward a few
months to a new superintendent
and a 60 percent
turnover on the board following an
election, and the district's tech coordinator
and network administrator got
the OK to purchase 100 cameras from
Axis Communications through CDW-G.
The cost of the purchase was
$130,000, and Spitz says it cost
$10,000 to install them at the district's
high school, Taos High. He estimates it
will take no more than $50,000 to
install cameras at the middle school
and three elementary schools that
comprise the 2,900-student district.
Twenty-five cameras were installed in
the high school, and plans call for 25
cameras each in the middle school and
largest elementary school, 15 in the second
elementary, and 10 in the third. One
computer can monitor and record
images from 16 cameras, and administrators
can pull up camera images from
any computer by inputting its IP
address. For the high school, the computer
monitors are in the security office.
"There's not enough money for a
security guard in each school, so this
gives faculty and staff a little piece of
mind to be able to monitor corridors and
corners of buildings," says Spitz, who's
been with the district since 1997, first as a
teacher before moving into IT in 2000.
Prior to joining the district, he was a
classroom teacher for six additional
years. "If they know cameras are watching,
I hope students think twice before
doing anything they shouldn't," Spitz
says. "Two or three kids going berserk in
a school can do as much damage as it
cost to implement the system."
Back Office Business
The Arkadelphia Public
School System has
chosen AVG Anti-Virus
Network Edition for the
district's five schools
and more than 700
Joey Andrews, the Arkansas district's
sole computer technician, selected
AVG Technologies because of its
reputation in the consumer marketplace
and purchased the software from
Walling Data because the supplier
offers discounts to educational clients.
Andrews made the change to save
money while maintaining the integrity
of email, data, and computer systems.
Walling Data backs up the AVG product
with free pre- and
post-sales support for
the life of the product
based in the United
States. Support is available
by toll-free phone,
email, or online via the
company's "We-do-it-for-you" remotecontrol
Texas District Adds Follett's
Destiny Textbook Manager
McKinney (TX) Independent School
District has adopted the Destiny
Textbook Manager from Follett
Software Co. in an effort to save staff
time and reduce its textbook losses.
The 23,000-student district serving
the North Dallas area tested the new
textbook system last spring and is
rolling it out to all schools in October.
Destiny installs at the district office and
is available to users throughout the district
via the Web. School staff check
books in and out of inventory by scanning
District officials believe the new system
will be dramatically more efficient
than the way the district previously
handled inventory, which was by multiple