Thanks to the availability of more affordable networking technology, voice over Internet Protocol is becoming one of the hottest discussions in school districts throughout the country. Not only does VoIP put a phone in every classroom, but it taps into the wealth of features that come with networking and IP telephony.
Although many vendors can help with nitty-gritty technical installation needs like which IP phones to buy or how to configure networks, it's up to individual school districts to prepare for VoIP through a series of planning and preparation steps. Here's a general timeline, and which key decisions need to be made from the blueprint stage to the first few months of implementation.
Eighteen months before implementation
Even before the first purchasing decision is ever made, a district has a number of planning needs to tackle, including how VoIP will be rolled out specifically, how it will be funded, and what role vendors will play in the initial discussions.
Although some districts may be tempted to do a rip-and-replace in order to have a VoIP system district-wide as soon as possible, many experts and vendors urge a more cautious, leisurely approach.
"VoIP should be phased in at a district's convenience," says Bob Bluemer, a director at networking firm Avaya. "It should be similar to a home redecorating effort; you wouldn't gut the house and redecorate everything at once, just in case you hate the motif. Instead, you would do it room by room. VoIP is the same."
Implementation on a smaller scale--say, a single room or department, or just one school--will help a district understand and use VoIP with fewer risks. If it turns out the district doesn't see the benefit of the technology or simply doesn't like it (and, Bluemer notes, this does happen), then the district won't be stuck with an entire system. Common complaints are frequently dropped calls and other quality of service issues, slowed network connections and too much IT time spent maintaining the system. Rolling out slowly will lesson these potential headaches.
Also during this timeframe should be a discussion about responsibilities. Consultants recommend that districts assign one individual to shepherding VoIP through the process. In most cases, this will be the head of network services or IT, but in some districts the facilities department handles VoIP. Wherever the leader is drawn from, he or she should take charge of the entire process, from initial planning to network assessments to training. That way, implementation will be faster and more cohesive.
When a plan of action is decided funding comes into play. By comparing a district's existing costs with proposed VoIP costs, a rough idea of ROI can be attained. To get a handle on potential savings, a district will need to get vendor quotes, and that process can fold in nicely with introducing others in the district to the technology.
John Dierdorff, manager of network services with the Palm Beach (Fla.) County Schools, chose vendors that appeared in research reports from the Gartner Group. He asked them to do demos for himself and one other tech person, but also for principals and teachers, because they'd be using the system so heavily. In pursuing subsequent vendor negotiations, Dierdorff found it was easier to get the go ahead from the district because employees' familiarity with the technology.
At this point, a district can also look at technology grants, local and state initiatives, and even partnerships with other districts so VoIP technology can be bought at volume discounts. Vendors, too, are usually eager to assist districts with price plans that will stretch out the costs over a period of time.
"We found that there was a great deal of flexibility in funding options from the vendors," says Dierdorff. "That definitely helps when you've got to get multiple approvals for purchasing."
Twelve months before
With general planning kick-started, it's time to turn to more specific technical issues relating to what's already in place at districts, mainly infrastructure and network systems. Now is also the time to ponder how upgrades to software and hardware will affect subsequent VoIP implementation. Even seemingly non-conflicting choices like operating system changes could affect how VoIP is rolled out.
Dan Burns, business manager for the Toledo (Ohio) Public Schools, decided in part to get VoIP in order to enhance security and safety, so that teachers could have phones in the classroom. Rather than trying to hook up traditional phones, Burns felt VoIP could prepare its districts for the future, by giving them more networking capability. But first Toledo had to make sure it was ready.
"The most important thing was making sure we had an infrastructure that could support it," says Burns. "Several years ago we put in a wide area network, and we had to make sure there was interoperability with that."
As Toledo continues to roll out VoIP, there is some equipment replacement, Burns notes, but mainly just the addition of hardware and systems. That means rather than refurbishing what it has, Toledo had to ensure that its infrastructure was scalable, and could handle the kind of growth that VoIP brings.
Also an issue is bandwidth, which has to be enough to handle another network component like VoIP, says Avaya's Bluemer. "Your entire data network has to be reassessed before an implementation," he notes. "If your equipment is having a hard time transporting data because of bandwidth concerns, imagine what will happen when you put voice on top of that."
In order to prevent problems, it's advisable to get a network assessment, which can be handled by an IT consultant or networking equipment vendors.
Six months before
The plan is in place, the network is spiffed up, and vendors are starting to bring in technology and systems that will get a few months of testing before they go live. Feels like training time.
Some districts choose to do VoIP training with administrators and teachers once the system is up, but trying to manage a new system and do training simultaneously can be hazardous to the health of any IT department. Instead, experts advise districts to do smaller training sessions, and spread out training over a period of months so users can get a feel for what's coming.
The first group to do training will likely be network and IT staffers who will have the most direct contact with VoIP systems. Vendors, who are only too happy to help customers learn the intricacies of their systems, often provide this type of education. Dierdorff implemented Avaya technology, and sent his IT employees to Avaya's training center so they could learn about IP switches, security and connectivity issues. The employees were also shown how to train teachers and administrators on the system when they returned to the district.
In parallel with training should be a focus on making sure the new systems have appropriate security controls, says John Halpin, public sector strategy manager at 3Com. "Number one should be physical security. You'd be shocked to learn how many devices are sitting in unlocked rooms."
From there, he recommends a thorough check of wireless protocols, intrusion prevention and application security. Because VoIP is an entryway into a district's network, every aspect of the network needs to be bolstered to make sure there are no virtual open doors. Halpin says, "Make sure code that runs the VoIP system is something that can't be hacked. Security should be rechecked at every level before implementation, from the infrastructure down to applications."
The first six months
Once a VoIP system has been implemented, a district should be prepared to handle additional training and glitches such as interoperability problems with network hardware and software, or additional costs related to network charges. If a problem does crop up, this is a good time to be glad that you've decided to roll it out on a smaller scale.
After a system has been in place for six months, a district should have a good feel for how it's working and will have moved beyond any initial difficulties with the system, training and technological interoperability.
At this point, it's time to think about expanding VoIP's role, including where it can be rolled out in other parts of the district. Some districts choose the six-month point to begin additional planning, when they ponder how to put VoIP in elementary schools, for example, rather than just high schools and administrator offices.
In addition to physical expansion, districts can now think about more features, notes Charles Fadel, Global Lead for education at Cisco. "VoIP phones are able to function with multiple applications, so once it's up and running, you can think about more than just telephony," he says, noting that schools may want to move into video telephony, Amber alerts, unified messaging or other higher-level functions.
No matter where a district is in the process, with VoIP there may be no such thing as too much planning, says Mary Ellen Buzzelli, Siemens' business development manager for public sector. The more forethought, the better the implementation will be, and the more likely it will be that a VoIP system will fit into a district easily and affordably.
"Each district will take its own approach, depending on its size, budget and technical resources," she says. "That means there's no one, standard way to implement VoIP. Because of that, planning is crucial, and it pays off in the long run with a streamlined, useful system."
Elizabeth Millard is a technology writer based in St. Louis Park, Minn.