These days, not even Paris Hilton is getting as much exposure as Voice over Internet Protocol. VoIP, which has existed since the mid-'90s but has only recently taken the IT world by storm, lets users make and receive phone calls over the Internet. Already embraced by the consumer market — there are more than 500,000 residential users in the United States, according to Frost & Sullivan — VoIP is now finding its way into K-12 education. And for good reason: the technology has helped many schools save big bucks in phone charges and administrative costs. How do you know if VoIP makes sense for your district? Use this list of questions to help guide your purchasing decisions.
1. How does VoIP work?
In a nutshell, VoIP is a nearly instantaneous way of transmitting voice communication, breaking it down into tiny little bits dubbed packets and sending them with data over the Internet. The voice packets are treated like any other piece of Internet data, such as Web pages and video files. Once the packets have reached their destination, they're separated from the data and reassembled to form a real-time streaming audio file. Although traditional calls require a separate circuit for each user (in other words, a phone number), Internet calls share space on the network with everything else and are routed according to their IP address.
2. I already have a data network — can't I just launch VoIP as another application?
Deploying VoIP isn't as simple as deploying other network applications for one major reason: bandwidth. Without an ample amount of bandwidth and the proper routing and switching equipment, the quality of your calls could suffer dramatically. Industry insiders call this Quality of Service (QoS) and say there's no point to investing in VoIP unless you can deliver high QoS from the very beginning. So before any VoIP implementation, be sure to assess whether your network meets the minimum bandwidth requirements for high-quality calls. Most vendors offer network assessments through their service divisions; another option is to hire a local or regional telecommunications solution provider to perform an independent assessment.
3. Once I've done a network assessment, how do I choose between vendors?
Today, VoIP companies can be broken down into two basic categories: those who sell hardware and those who sell services. Hardware vendors include some of the biggest names in networking: Cisco, 3Com, and Siemens, to name a few. The market also has sprouted some upstart hardware companies that focus solely on VoIP (see "Who's Who"). Hardware solutions typically consist of a central VoIP call server that sits in-line with other network servers; gateway routers that direct calls to various locations on the network; and VoIP telephones that receive these calls (see "Snapshot: VoIP Network" image, above). Some hardware vendors also enable a converged network that makes it possible for a single-circuit phone system to transmit information over the network. No matter which approach you choose, the initial investment in VoIP hardware can be significant, costing larger districts $2-3 million or more.
Then, of course, there are the service vendors. Members of this gang leave the servers, routers, and switches to the big boys and instead focus on applications that districts can use to roll out VoIP on their own. Most of these companies offer services that enable districts to deliver VoIP capabilities over traditional analog phones. Vonage, for instance, delivers VoIP through an analog telephone adapter. The ATA converts outgoing analog signals to IP and incoming IP-enabled voice packets back into analog. CrystalVoice offers a similar service through software that is uploaded onto a laptop or PC (you then plug the phone directly in to the computer). Over the past year, traditional telecommunications companies such as Sprint and Verizon have followed this service route, as well. Generally, these service models are cheaper than investing in hardware, but they leave districts at the mercy of service providers in regards to disruptions.
4. What distinguishes a VoIP telephone from an ordinary one, and how do I know which VoIP telephone to buy?
VoIP telephones are simply ordinary telephones with IP-enabling software built in. That said, not all VoIP telephones are created equal. Phones from vendors such as Cisco, 3Com, and Siemens range in price from as low as $79 to as much as $699. Naturally, those at the higher end of this scale boast more features than the others. Generally, the best VoIP telephones are those with decent-size display screens. Many of the midrange phones also offer intercom/paging services and push-button 911. Pricier phones incorporate videoconferencing and basic Web surfing — overkill features for most K-12 environments.
5. Is the technology really that much of a money-saver?
VoIP receives a lot of attention in the corporate world for its ability to cut down on long distance costs, but unless your district spans a number of counties, you're probably not spending that much on long distance to begin with. The real cost savings with VoIP in education come in the areas of maintenance and support. Because the technology merges voice and network communications, districts that sign up for the technology no longer need to fund costly single-circuit telecommunications and can free up hundreds of thousands of dollars.
6. What other benefits does VoIP provide?
Hands down, the biggest advantage of VoIP is flexibility. Because the technology runs over the Internet instead of single-circuit phone lines, districts can put phones in every classroom without spending money on traditional phone jacks or an Intercom system. Beyond this, VoIP offers a bevy of nifty tricks that are hard to accomplish with regular phones. Most basic VoIP management software lets users receive voicemails as e-mail messages and attach voice messages to e-mails. Another plus is call forwarding-if a teacher switches classrooms, he or she can plug a VoIP telephone in to any broadband connection and calls will automatically forward without requiring the teacher to set up a new number. Finally, VoIP telephones with display screens can give users access to directories, daily bulletins, local news and weather updates, and even student attendance files in some cases.
In recent years, VoIP technology has enhanced yet another feature that resonates with K-12 schools: e911. This feature not only enables 911 calls from VoIP systems but also allows local police and other emergency response personnel to pinpoint exactly where on the network a call originates and respond accordingly.
7. What are the downsides?
Quality is perhaps the biggest downside to VoIP. Although it has improved considerably in the past few years, the quality of IP calls remains inferior to regular phone service, typically somewhere between a cell phone call and a regular landline call. What's more, because the system is tied to the network and networks require electricity to function properly, school districts using VoIP also need to invest in a backup system to protect connections in case of a power outage. This backup system isn't necessary with regular phones because they run off the small amount of power that phone companies transmit over ordinary lines.
Security also has become an issue for VoIP, and vendors suggest that all customers put VoIP servers behind a firewall and protect them with the same precautions they use to protect their data. Finally, for those districts that purchase VoIP products from a variety of vendors, compatibility can be an issue. To foster a unified platform for VoIP equipment from different manufacturers, the telecommunications industry has established standards such as the widely adopted Session Integration Protocol. If you're thinking about dipping your proverbial toe in the VoIP pool, be sure the equipment you plan to purchase meets this standard, and don't assume that all products do.
Matt Villano (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a California-based freelance writer who specializes in educational technology.
Pick His Brain
How a district changed communications with VoIP
Few educators know more about VoIP than Jim Klein, director of information services at the Saugus Union School District in Santa Clarita, Calif., who this year spent roughly $600,000 on a VoIP implementation.
"We're a huge district — 11,000 students in 14 schools, with a district office. As we looked at upgrading our infrastructure as a whole, it made sense for us to look at VoIP because of its ease of deployment and management," Klein says. "Since we already had Ethernet jacks in every classroom, VoIP also presented us with the most cost-effective option for getting phones into each one. In the end, we bought about 700 phones and 15 call processors, one for each school and the district office.
"Now every person in the district has a three-digit extension, and everybody loves the features of the new system," he says. "In terms of maintenance, VoIP has simplified things for us, too." Now, instead of supporting a data network and a separate system for telecommunications, we've got one network that runs everything side by side."
- Get a network assessment to see how much you would need to invest in your network before spending money on VoIP.
- Decide whether you want to buy your own VoIP equipment or purchase VoIP service from a service provider.
- To minimize frustration, take the time to train your users on how to use the system.
- Invest in a backup system for power outages and other emergencies.
- Be sure VoIP equipment from different vendors meets the SIP standard so it all works together seamlessly.
There are dozens of vendors that specialize in VoIP technology. Here is a sampling of some of those serving the K-12 market.
Waters Network Systems