New ATM tool takes the toll out of in-district phone calls: Companies are helping schools find multiple uses for their telecommunications equipment

You can’t withdraw cash with it, but if you pay toll charges to make school-to-school telephone calls, a new asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) application could give you savings you can bank on.

Sphere Communications Inc., a communications company in Lake Bluff, Ill., uses new ATM technology to take the high cost out of in-district toll calls. Its product, dubbed Sphericall, allows you to use your high-speed data network to give your school system high-quality internal telephone service.

Sphericall, which runs from computer software, was created for small businesses and is now being targeted to schools. Sphere Communications claims you can use its product to set up an almost unlimited number of phones throughout your school system for less than half of what a traditional telephone company would charge.

Converting voice to data

The new application takes the sound of a voice and converts it briefly to data the ATM line can carry, then it converts the data back to sound for the end-listener.

“This has never been done before,” said Marci Williams, of Sphere Communications Inc.

The system provides fully functional telephone service–including voice mail, unified messaging, conferencing, auto-attendant, call forwarding, group pick-up, paging, and other standard digital and analog telephone features–for about half the cost a telephone company would charge for such services, said Frank Brletich, Sphere Communications president and CEO.

Sphere is able to offer its services for much less than competitors like Nortel, Lucent Technologies, and other more traditional telephone service providers. During a recent bidding process, Sphere’s bid to install and provide service for about 1,000 telephones across a West Coast school district came in well below that of other major competitors. The small company won the bid based on its assessment that the district could recoup the cost of installation in 18 months and save $1.3 million in five years.

“It’s fairly expensive to put standard phones into every classroom,” Brletich said. Rather than run in two lines–one for data, one for voice–to every classroom, Sphericall allows you to use the ATM line that already carries in your data to transport voice.

Because the application acts as a network element/PBX, Sphericall is eligible for subsidy under the eRate program, according to the company, which has applied for a Service Provider Identification Number (SPIN) to register with the Schools and Libraries Corp.

Quality of service

PC telephony is nothing new. Single users can transmit voice over the internet and PCs can employ a “voice bus” and voice boards from any number of vendors. But neither system can handle both voice and data over the same network with high-quality voice transmission.

Sphericall allows the network to carry data and voice at the same time, prioritizing the voice when it comes in. ATM was chosen as the network protocol for this new technology because it allows for a guaranteed quality of service.

That means that data related to voice transmission can be assigned priority over all other traffic on the line–including strictly code data. The result, the company says, is a sound quality that meets or exceeds that of traditional telephone service.

Telephone service for the digital age

With the Sphericall system, users also can control their telephone features on a desktop computer. For instance, you can transfer a phone call to another user’s line by using the mouse to drag the call to the user’s name. You also can use the desktop feature to view the phone numbers of all incoming calls and decide which to answer and which to re-route–all on your computer screen.

If you have access to your school or district server while on the road, you can download voice-mail messages to your laptop and listen to them later–saving yourself the expense of a long-distance call to listen to your messages.

Although the system runs on software residing on a local server, you can select a level of fault tolerance right up to complete redundancy. That means Sphericall will continue to deliver telephone service to the desktop even if the client computer is “locked up” or rebooting, the company said.

The drawbacks: The service will run only on a Windows NT 4.0 server, supporting NT 4.0 and Windows 95 clients. It does not support UNIX, OS/2, or Mac operating systems.

Sphere Communications Inc.

eSchool News Staff

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