Call it more than just the latest technology trend: A growing number of school systems nationwide are tapping into voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) technology to reap what could add up to substantial long-term savings on their telecommunications systems.

Providing each teacher with a traditional phone line from a telecommunications company is costly–about $30 a month per line, per teacher. But many school districts have successfully reduced this extra cost by operating their telephone system in house over their high-speed data networks.

The Appleton Area School District in Wisconsin–which is still in the process of deploying a VoIP system from Mitel Corp.–will downsize its phone network from 900 analog phone lines to 300.

“That’s a cost savings right there of over $300,000 a year,” said Jim Hawbaker, Appleton’s director of information technology. He figures these savings will pay back the system’s $1.3 million installation cost within four years.

With VoIP in place, the district can affordably provide a telephone in each classroom, voice mail for each teacher, caller ID, an emergency speaker in each classroom, conference calling, three-way conference calling, and more. “Those are things that we did not have previously,” Hawbaker said.

VoIP technology is not appealing to every school district, however. Even with the promised cost savings, some say its reliability and regulations are still too immature to warrant a switch.

“I have a voice system that works very well and works everyday, and I’m just not willing to change,” said Andrew Berning, chief technology officer of the Carrollton Farmers Branch Independent School District in Texas, who has been monitoring the developments of VoIP closely.

Before considering a VoIP system, “I would like the technology to become ripe and the standards to become better,” Berning said.

So what should you make of VoIP? Is it ready for deployment? Is it right for your schools? Those are questions this article is about to address.

Reliability

One concern about VoIP systems is that if the data network fails, the entire phone system goes with it.

“If your data network goes down or just bogs down, you’ll basically loose your phone service,” said Gary Collins, director of public sectors for Avaya Inc., who recommends that school districts avoid switching 100 percent to VoIP phone systems.

“If you have a good-quality network … VoIP will work. But still, a traditional phone system is going to be more reliable than a voice network,” Collins said. “We can do pure VoIP if that’s what a customer wants to do, but I would never recommend it to a customer.”

Like any computer network, VoIP systems also are susceptible to viruses. “The majority of VoIP servers are Windows-based, and if a virus gets in your network and your IP server is on your network, then it’ll take out your phone system as well,” Collins said.

However, schools can and should put in place redundancy plans to ensure this doesn’t happen.

Clark County School District in Las Vegas hired a major engineering company to design a reliable, converged $70 million network that would deliver distance education, educational applications, video streaming, VoIP, and school surveillance-camera images over the same network.

The No. 1 condition of the project was that if one component failed, it couldn’t take down the whole network, said Philip Brody, the district’s chief technology officer.

“Data people can tolerate the router being down for an hour, but with voice [traffic] you can’t tolerate [a disruption],” said Don Dietrich, vice president of Dietrich Lockard Group Inc., the firm hired by Clark County to evaluate alternative VoIP technologies.

Clark County, the nation’s sixth largest and fastest growing school district, has deployed Alcatel’s VoIP technology at 49 of its 289 schools so far.

“Our board wanted a phone in every classroom. With 15,000 classrooms, that’s a lot of phones,” Brody said, but “it’s been working pretty solidly for us.”

Packet loss

Another concern is packet loss. When data, video, or voice feeds are transmitted across a network, they are broken up into small packets of information and reassembled at the destination. When a network slows or fails, some packets inevitably get lost and never arrive. With voice traffic, the end result is a choppy or clipped-sounding conversation.

Technology improvements and better bandwidth management do compensate for this, however.

“No longer is there really any packet loss,” said Thomas Patchin, Sprint Corp.’s director of sales for vertical markets. Sprint has publicly announced about 15 to 20 school systems that use its VoIP technology.

Paul Butcher, chief executive of Mitel Networks Inc., which has deployed VoIP solutions in about 100 school districts, agrees. “Where you start losing packets is when you start routing traffic over the internet,” Butcher said. “Most schools aren’t routing their traffic over the internet, they’re routing over a wide area network.”

Packet technology does cause VoIP to be incompatible with fax service and Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf (TDD), which schools are required to support according to the equal-access laws of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“It is true that voice over IP can cause issues with TDD systems,” said Dorothy Lockard, president of Dietrich Lockard Group. “TDDs have such small pieces of information that when you drop parts of them, you lose major parts of the conversation.”

Lockard said companies have “added software that rebuilds the conversation when it gets there, but a fax machine or TDD can’t interpret that.”

Again, there are alternative ways to compensate for this. The most common is to maintain some analog, copper telephone lines for fax service, TDDs, fire alarms, elevators, and other safety measures. A district also could route incoming faxes to a server environment instead of a fax machine. Faxes then would be eMailed to the recipient instead of printed.

Other concerns

The upfront cost of VoIP systems can be high, and there still are ongoing costs such as annual subscription fees for the server-based software that provides voice mail.

“Once you’ve decide to become your own phone system, you have the cost of maintaining it,” Hawbaker said.

Installing VoIP is also a long, technical, and sometimes painful process. Once infrastructure and redundancy plans are in place, Hawbaker said, IT administrators still need to tweak the packet size and get comfortable with the Ethernet switching to work out the bugs–like calls that echo and messages that cut off.

Plus, IP phones–especially cordless ones–have limited selection and functionality, Hawbaker added.

Finally, there are regulatory issues that need to be addressed. As the distinction between voice and data communication vanishes, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and state regulators are mulling whether VoIP services should be subject to the same fees and regulations as traditional telecommunications services–including contributions to the federal Universal Service Fund that pays for eRate discounts and other benefits.

The FCC also must decide whether–and how–providers of VoIP telephone service should interact with public safety networks.

The FCC has yet to decide whether VoIP service is a telecommunications service or an unregulated information service. Until this issue is resolved, local and long-distance VoIP service is not eligible for eRate discounts–though the equipment necessary to deliver VoIP service throughout a district is eligible.

Potential benefits

In the long run, proponents of the technology say, VoIP can help school districts offer a more robust telephone service for less money.

“Any district with size and multiple locations is trying to find ways to squeeze more out of its operational dollars,” Patchin said. “I think over time you’ll see most districts going to this technology–[maybe] over the next three to five years.”

VoIP is another way to leverage the investment from eRate discounts by expanding the usefulness of high-speed networks to include multiple functions, including data, video streaming, videoconferencing, and voice traffic.

“Obviously, you’re going to save money, because you have one infrastructure instead of two,” Butcher said.

Also, reducing the number of different phone systems used within a district and standardizing onto a single system helps make repairs faster and easier.

“We had 300 separate systems. With [VoIP], we now have one large system,” Brody said. Maintenance and repairs also can be done remotely from a central location, instead of driving to every school building. The transition between a district’s voice network and the public network is transparent. Calls do not experience any degradation, because they are translated to an analog signal as soon as they enter the public network.

In addition to cost savings, VoIP offers schools a slew of new features ideally suited to education needs.

For example, parents can call an automated attendant to find out if their child has arrived at school, and students can hear a summary of their homework assignments.

Users can send a single voice-mail message to an entire group. For example, English teachers working on textbook committee can record their text choices in a voice-mail message and send them to a single distribution list. “Instead of calling eight different schools, you can use a single distribution list, and that voice mail will find its way to the voice boxes across all those different schools,” said Lockard.

Phone systems can be programmed at each school to ring only during recess, lunch, and after-school hours, so outsiders can’t call into a classroom and disturb class time.

“Those are services you would not get if you were using the public utility phone system,” Dietrich said.

VoIP systems offer other conveniences, too, such as automatically reporting errors and updating the electronic phone book used by the operator, or the district’s dial-by-name directory. In addition, every classroom can call 911 directly.

Weighing the balance

Educators remain divided on whether VoIP is ready for widespread deployment.

“VoIP is a very solid solution,” Hawbaker said. “We didn’t choose to do VoIP because we had money to waste; we chose it because it’s an economic solution to reduce costs.”

If a district spends a lot of money on local calls and has more than 100 phones, it should consider VoIP, he said: “You have to weigh the balance.”

So far, 26 of Appleton’s 28 school buildings use VoIP for their telephone service. The installation, which has taken more than a year, involves providing adequate wiring and electricity, as well as planning for 911 compliance. “We have to make sure all of those requirements are in place before we kick the system into [gear] at those locations,” Hawbaker said.

Schools shouldn’t be intimated by VoIP, proponents say. “It’s gone well beyond a hobbyist, leading-edge type of deployment,” Butcher said.

But others are more cautious.

“For a school district, I don’t think a pure, 100-percent VoIP solution is the way to go & The technology is not quite there yet,” Collins said.

“Is it ready for prime time? Yes. Is it all things to all people? No,” Patchin said.

If you do decide to go with a VoIP solution, choosing the right vendor is a critical decision, Patchin said. Look for a business partner that is experienced, understands the installation and the customer’s needs, and knows the certain tricks and nuisances of each product and component.

Links:

Appleton Area School District
http://www.aasd.k12.wi.us

Clark County School District
http://www.ccsd.net

Carrollton Farmers Branch Independent School District
http://www.cfbisd.edu

Alcatel
http://www.alcatel.com

Avaya Inc.
http://www.avaya.com

Dietrich Lockard Group
http://www.dietrichlockard.com

Mitel Corp.
http://www.mitel.com

Sprint Corp.
http://www.sprint.com/education