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VOIP in vogue in schools

New tech offers more reliable and efficient voice communications
Districts often deploy VoIP to replace outdated “plain old telephone systems” that are past warranty or can’t be fixed because replacement parts are scarce.
Districts often deploy VoIP to replace outdated “plain old telephone systems” that are past warranty or can’t be fixed because replacement parts are scarce.

The internet delivers assessments, videos and instructional content to schools, so why not phone service, too?

Adding voice to the bandwidth communications stream makes sense to an increasing number of district leaders who are swapping traditional landlines for Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).

VoIP runs on broadband and Wi-Fi connections so people can make calls from computers, special VoIP phones or traditional phones with adapters. The technology is gaining traction for several reasons: the increased availability of high-capacity bandwidth, a change in E-rate funding that leaves districts responsible for the total cost of their voice-related services by 2019, and productivity features available only with VoIP.

“Voice is a form of data,” says David Fringer, chief technology officer at Council Bluffs Community School District in Iowa, which has switched to VoIP. “It makes sense to have all data flow over our data networks.”

Districts often deploy VoIP to replace outdated “plain old telephone systems” that are past warranty or can’t be fixed because replacement parts are scarce. Phone hardware typically needs to be upgraded every five years, experts say.  That was the case at Travis USD in Northern California before they switched to VoIP. “We had an aging system,” says Jon Cornelison, director of technology services at the district. “Entire phone systems would go down for a whole day.”

When a line goes down on an old phone system, so do the calls. But VoIP calls run on an internet network that has multiple routes within a district’s broadband infrastructure.

If one path is down or blocked, the voice packet can simply switch to another to keep the calls functioning. And in K12, downtime is not an option.

“Some people look at phone systems as just enabling communications,” says Tony Hunter, the chief information officer at Broward County Public Schools in South Florida, which relies on a VoIP service.

“But in K12, it’s about safety, too. The district must be in a position that, at any given time, if anything happens on campus, we have access to the appropriate personnel and resources.”

Choose capacity and clouds

Many districts have already installed high-capacity networks to meet the demand for online assessments and instructional content. However, voice packets are large and require additional bandwidth, says Kevin Carman, director of education marketing at AT&T. Carman says the amount will vary by a district’s usage; however districts will likely need more bandwidth than the State Educational Technology Directors Association recommends for instruction and assessment to add VoIP.

SETDA recommends that schools have at least 100 megabits per second (Mbps) capacity per 1,000 users now; and 1,000 Mbps (1 gigabit Gbps) per 1,000 users by 2017-18.

There are two primary decisions for districts once they move to VoIP. One is choosing the service: Some districts contract VoIP from their bandwidth provider while others pick a separate vendor and must merge phone traffic into their existing bandwidth stream. 

The second decision is whether to host the private branch exchange (PBX) on-site or use vendors in the cloud. Districts that host the service themselves must also maintain their own private branch exchange. 

In addition, they will likely need to install network switches or routers to connect the district’s existing broadband infrastructure to the VoIP provider’s service. Broward County schools hosts its own VoIP infrastructure, and in 2015 chose its internet provider to deliver the service to its 255 sites.

In a cloud VoIP solution, the vendor hosts and operates the private branch exchange, freeing the district from having to install the hardware that manages call routing, voice mail and other features.

Council Bluffs chose its internet provider’s cloud for VoIP to support about 1,000 individual lines. “Setup of the service was practically hands off,” says Fringer. “We had no responsibility except getting cables to the actual handsets.”

The scalability of the cloud setup appealed to Council Bluffs. If the district, which is billed per line, closes an office, the provider discontinues service to those phones. Similarly, it can also easily add phone lines.

Travis USD also went with the cloud. “We don’t have enough staff to support equipment on-site,” says Cornelison. “Going with the cloud just makes good business sense.”

Additionally, the district had already invested heavily in its network for data, creating 1-to-1 Wi-Fi access points that can support the added phone service. Its VoIP service runs on a broadband connection to the district’s existing network.

With both the hosted and cloud models, districts need CAT5 or better cabling to deliver the VoIP service to phones. Fringer says replacing the CAT3 telephone wires with CAT5 cables in the buildings was labor-intensive but was completed by one of the district’s staff members as part of his regular data cabling duties. The cost of materials was about $20 per line and the labor also cost about $20 per line. Districts likely need to upgrade to CAT5 cable for data transmission, so it is not necessarily an extra step to accommodate VoIP, Fringer says.

Profit from productivity 

A range of productivity features also tip the scales in favor of VoIP. For example, phone messages can be forwarded to a PC or mobile device via email. And the tool lets staff members use mobile devices to check district voicemail when they’re off-site. They can also easily forward the voicemail to others.

This feature helps when teachers don’t have an actual district phone. They can access messages left at their extension through their email or a virtual mailbox. Other popular features are call logs that show who called, and an auto attendant that directs callers to the right extensions.

And when staff members move from one office to another, they can keep their extensions which eliminates confusion and the possibility of misdirected calls. “There is a lot of mobility within a district,” says Hunter, of Broward County schools. “People can take their phones with them and plug them in, and maintain their extension. That’s a huge advantage.”

VoIP allowed Travis USD to add conferencing capability to an outdated conference room. Staff members can easily connect a device to a jack to start a conference call. Another useful feature is a call bridge that lets a superintendent, for instance, quickly initiate a call with a defined set of users, such as all the principals.

Individual users can change and manage some features, such as their greeting, but IT does the bulk of the management through a web console. Council Bluffs, for example, set up its auto attendant to give different greetings on school days, weekends, holidays and evenings.

It’s important to consider the new features when comparing the cost of VoIP to old phone systems, says Hunter. “You can’t just compare costs,” he says. “You also gain a lot in personnel time and efficiency.”

Some VoIP providers require districts to buy or lease accompanying phone handsets. With others, districts can use existing phones but those phones might not provide access to the full suite of VoIP features.

VoIP providers typically charge school districts a monthly rate based on the number of users and features, such as voicemail and call forwarding. Typically, customers can choose from a tiered system of features.

“VoIP has been around awhile, so look for a provider that has extensive background,” recommends Hunter. “Don’t try and reinvent the wheel.”

Before you make the switch

Districts that have shifted to VoIP say it is a low-risk and well-proven technology. But they caution districts not to overlook three low-tech but essential tasks:

  • Make a list of all lines and numbers to be converted to VoIP service so they are not lost or forgotten during the migration.
  • If extensions change, make sure staff communicate their new extension in their email signature, voicemail and other communications channels prior to the change. 
  • Double check to make sure 911 and other emergency numbers work.

Katie Kilfoyle Remis is a freelance writer in upstate New York.