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 large districts.
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 computers.
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 surveillance systems.
Miami-Dade County Public Schools
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 the facility.
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 product."
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 schools.
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 and Anti-Spyware Network Edition for the district's five schools and more than 700 workstations.
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 from representatives 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 support service.
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 their barcodes.
District officials believe the new system will be dramatically more efficient than the way the district previously handled inventory, which was by multiple spreadsheets.