Digital phones can save money for schools but there are many pitfalls.
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, with many districts looking to use VOIP for connecting its schools and 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 E-Rate 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 three-quarters 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, like special education rooms, department heads, 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.
3Com—The originator of the Ethernet protocol, 3Com has a dozen different Internet telephony platforms for small, medium and large districts.
Trillion—Based in Austin, Trillion provides phone services exclusively to schools on a monthly basis and uses ShoreTel hardware and software.
Cisco—Probably the largest VOIP hardware vendor, Cisco has a wide range of hardware and software that emphasizes the convergence of voice, video and data.
Siemens—The company's HiPath VOIP platform has been used in many schools and campuses.
Mitel—Mitel's digital phones cover the gamut of needs from simple handsets to the equivalent of desktop computers.