As Voice over Internet Protocol becomes more integrated into schools, district officials are faced with a key question when bringing voice from the network to the classroom: should they keep their analog phones or go for the pricier but more streamlined wireless handsets? The answer, not surprisingly, depends largely on a district's budget and whether the Wi-Fi phones are truly necessary, or simply a nice-to-have perk.
Some districts have found that wireless IP handsets have several advantages over more traditional phones. They can ensure that school administrators can make and receive calls from any building on campus, and help maintain the physical safety of staff and students because users can stay in continual contact during an emergency. Also useful is that it can reduce cell phone costs since the phones tap into the IP network.
"With wireless VoIP, districts can provide voice services in places where they may not have adequate data wiring, such as mobile classrooms or trailers," says Phyllis Hawkins, education solutions manager at Cisco Systems. Rural districts, and those without strong cellular coverage, could particularly benefit, she adds.
At Charles County (Md.) Public Schools, the district decided to go end-to-end wireless because it fit in with a major overhaul done three years ago.
"We upgraded every switch, and replaced the entire network," says Lora Bennett, IT manager at Charles County. "It made sense to upgrade the phones, too, so that they could be at the same level as the system. Already, we were regularly replacing phones and it seemed more cost effective in the long run to make the switch."
One issue at Charles County, and at many schools that use wireless IP phones is the coverage area, which may not extend far beyond a building's boundary. Bennett notes that athletic directors tend to use their cell phones when outside rather than deal with network range problems.
But lack of range can also be an advantage, says Joe Brown, director of information technology at Caddo (La.) Public Schools District. Teachers can't take the phones home, and anyone tempted to steal a handset would soon find that it couldn't be used off school property, unlike a cell phone.
Caddo installed Wi-Fi handsets last year as part of a network upgrade, and has discovered the devices have had some unexpected pluses. For example, student discipline has improved, since teachers can offer children a choice of improving their behavior, or having a parent called on the spot. "It got very interesting when that capability came into play," says Brown. "We had no idea the phones would be such a great tool for discipline."
Because the phones are wireless, teachers can take the student aside, usually into the hallway, rather than call a parent or an administrator from inside the classroom, in front of the whole class. "The point isn't to embarrass the student, so having some measure of privacy is valuable because it shows sensitivity," says Brown.
Like other schools that have implemented Wi-Fi handsets, Caddo also appreciates the heightened security the phones offer. Rather than being tethered to a classroom, teachers can carry the phones with them and call 911 from anywhere if they see an unfamiliar person or have an emergency situation. "It's comforting to everyone to have that capability," Brown says.
Despite their advantages, some districts find the major challenge in implementing wireless phones can be the cost, says Hawkins. Although they have dropped in price since first being introduced, most handsets still range from $300 to $650. Hawkins notes some districts might be uncomfortable with spending that much per classroom, but points out that replacing parts of a system piece by piece could drive costs up over the long term.
"When you look at the cost savings with VoIP, the business case is strong to justify the expense of wireless handsets," she notes. "Upfront, it may be more costly than traditional phones, but you have to consider the lifetime maintenance costs of those systems, and the replacement costs. Also, there may be more support needed to bring together VoIP functionality with traditional handsets."
But not all districts are convinced there will be such savings in the long run, and prefer to install cordless analog phones instead. In fact, with the price of standard handsets dropping significantly in the past few years, some have opted to buy even cheaper phones than they previously had.
"We can have $10 phones in each classroom and still have VoIP capability," says Gloria Stevenson, director of instructional and information technology services at Columbia (Mo.) Public Schools. "That's the nice thing about the system, and one of the reasons we chose it." Although the district bought a few wireless handsets for use out on the athletic fields and playgrounds, Stevenson notes the low-cost analog phones have enough functionality to suit every school's needs.
For those who want more extensive phone functions but aren't ready to go wireless, there is the option of an IP phone, which looks much like an analog handset but taps into the network's capability more than traditional phones. At a price of about $100 per handset, the cost may still be too high for some districts, but can allow for a blend of Wi-Fi phones, desk-bound IP, and analog phones.
At Wadsworth School District in Ohio, such a combination of IP phones and analog handsets allows schools to adapt the system to their needs, says Gary Shorter, Wadsworth's director of technology. The district has about 500 IP phones, but has rolled them out slowly. "It was helpful that we could still use our analog phones with the VoIP hub in place," says Shorter. "When the wireless handsets first came out, I didn't relish spending $300 per classroom, especially if it could be taken out of the room by someone not authorized to do so."
Although some districts prefer to wait until costs come down, some vendors in the industry-including Cisco, Nortel, SpectraLink and Sphere Communications-say wireless handsets will eventually have much greater adoption. Much as VoIP used to be a novelty and is now fairly standard, Wi-Fi handsets could become a regular budget item for the majority of districts.
"These phones are relatively new, in terms of technology cycles," says Ben Guderian, vice president for market strategies and industry relations at SpectraLink. "Budgets are always an issue, too, but if you look at how much is being invested in wireless, it makes sense that districts will make sure their voice services are on par with the rest of their wireless plan."
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer based in St. Louis Park, Minn.