With approximately 24,000 school district phones (including 2,700 at its central office), 600 PBX and key systems, 16,000 centrex lines, and more than 1,200 data circuits, the Chicago Public Schools’ telecommunications infrastructure was massive. To bring the system into the 21st century–and ultimately save millions of dollars in telephone line charges–the district’s Office of Technology Services decided to make the switch to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology.

The resulting $28 million Advanced Telecommunications Project is believed to be among the largest K-12 communications deployments of its kind in the United States. Installation already has begun and will continue over the next four years.

“We’re looking at eliminating some of these key systems that are about 15 years old,” says Steve Dorner, deputy CIO in charge of infrastructure. “We can’t do things like caller ID because of the age of the system.”

Plus, he noted, every time something within the phone system needed to be fixed or changed, “you’d have to send someone out there to do it. And every time we dispatch, we’re spending money.”

The switch to VoIP reportedly will save more than $20 per phone on maintenance alone. Total cost savings, according to Dorner, will be about $7 million per year.

OTS chose Mitel Networked Business Solutions for the initiative, which is funded in part by the federal eRate program. According to Mitel, the project aims to improve overall communications, reduce costs, gain operating efficiencies, increase school safety, and support the deployment of new applications now and into the future.

Specifically, the switch to VoIP will improve the district’s communication in several ways, officials say. It will allow each teacher to have voice mail, which will improve parentteacher communications dramatically. It also will enable caller ID, multilingual auto-attendant, text-tospeech, and fax mail services.

In addition, the new system will allow for the tracing of “malicious calls” (CPS reportedly receives about 10 of these per week), as well as outbound messaging to contact parents in the event of an emergency. The autoattendant feature also advises callers of late-breaking news, such as school closures and special events.

Significantly, the project will allow the district to comply with Illinois state and city E-911 requirements. With increased awareness regarding safety in public schools and other environments, public-sector organizations are placing even more importance on handling emergency calls with efficiency. Mitel’s Emergency Response Adviser for E-911 will enable CPS to notify on-site emergency response personnel of an emergency regardless of their location and will allow on-site and off-site emergency response personnel to pinpoint the exact location of an emergency call.

Eventually, there will be the capability for each classroom to have its own phone, though for now OTS is concentrating mainly on replacing existing phones, says Dorner.

“We chose Mitel to provide this new network because they offer a solution that allows us to reduce our operating costs and improve safety,” said CIO Robert Runcie. “This is in line with our overall mission to provide all our students with high-quality instruction, advanced academic programs, and comprehensive student development in a safe and secure environment.”

Mitel designed a network to maximize cost-effectiveness by using the district’s existing private and public data network, as well as reconfiguring the CPS Public Switched Telephone Network. The end result is a resilient and fault-tolerant network that will seamlessly connect 700 schools and administrative buildings, officials say. The VoIP initiative uses the high schools as the hub, with connections to the elementary schools coming through those hubs. All told, there will be 75 hubs, with each elementary school connected to one of them.

OTS will continue to maintain “a couple of centrex lines, as well as some of the POTS [plain old telephone system] lines,” for the sake of redundancy, says Dorner. The district will use what Dorner calls “least-cost routing.”

First, calls will go through the VoIP system. If for some reason the VoIP system is not available, then the calls “will go through centrex, or finally through POTS.”

Surprisingly, for such a major investment, OTS seems to regard the rollout of its Advanced Telecommunications Project as just another task to be completed in a long list of accomplishments. Dorner needs to be prodded for him to talk about it as a major initiative– an indication, perhaps, of just how smooth the first year of the rollout has been so far. –JN