Magazine article Technology & Learning

Keeping VoIP from Being the Wrong Number: Digital Phones Can Save Money for Schools but There Are Many Pitfalls

Magazine article Technology & Learning

Keeping VoIP from Being the Wrong Number: Digital Phones Can Save Money for Schools but There Are Many Pitfalls

Article excerpt

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In 2004, when Gary L. Allen was considering different approaches for replacing the Amarillo Independent School District's antiquated phone system, he had a dilemma. The goal was to expand the features that the district's phones were capable of while taking advantage of its digital infrastructure and cutting costs. But, should he buy the latest Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) equipment for AISD or have a company provide digital phone service?

He's not alone. Many districts consider VoIP for connecting its schools and are unsure which way to go. One of the most powerful digital technologies for education, VoIP can reduce communication costs by routing calls over a district's internal network rather than the more expensive phone network.

Instead of buying the equipment from the usual VoIP (pronounced voy-P) suspects, he went to Austin, Texas-based Trillion,-which specializes in providing school phone services. "Early on, I came to the realization that it cost about the same over five years to have a company do everything for a monthly fee," explains Allen, who is the AISD's chief technology officer. "The big .pay off was that there was no money needed up front and they did it all."

Today. the district's 56 schools and facilities are digitally connected and have an array of features that couldn't be delivered with the district's analog network. More to the point, AISD is saving bundles of cash.

ANSWERING THE CALL

"Using VoIP is one of the best ways to cut costs and bring communications into the 21-st century," offers Matthias Machowinski, directing analyst for enterprise voice and data at market analysis firm Infonetics. "Above all," he adds, "using VoIP involves a new way of looking at phones."

It's not as simple as it seems. "When you get down to the details, VoIP for a school can be tough to get it all right," explains Renaye Thornborrow, vice president of marketing at Trillion. "There are many places that a district can go wrong and make matters worse."

While a district can purchase VoIP hardware from 3Com, Cisco, Siemens, Mitel or some of the other usual suspects, it takes skill and experience to design, tune, and monitor it so that every call goes through with excellent audio. "The biggest mistake that schools make is thinking of VoIP as hardware and not as a service," adds Thornborrow.

Trillion delivered on all aspects of AISD's new phone network, from initial design, through installation and start-up to hour-by-hour monitoring and optimization. Unlike buying hardware, the typical district pays a monthly fee for everything, which is generally about $20 per phone. But, that amount can be reduced with E-Rate subsidies. Last year, the FCC paid out $2.5 billion in E-Rate funds, which is collected from taxes on phone bills.

There's no guarantee how much--if any--E-Rate money a district will get, but VoIP services are classified as Priority 1 and get higher subsidies than hardware purchases, which are classified as Priority 2. For some districts, E-Rate pays three-quarters or more of their phone costs.

The savings add up quickly. Four years ago, AISD was paying between $10 and $12 each for the 2,200 AT&T Centrex phone lines that connected its buildings. Trillion estimated that the district would lower its bills by at least $25,000 a year.

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CHEAP TO KEEP

Fast forward to today and Allen says that the savings actually turned out to be higher. With E-Rate funds, the VoIP service costs $3 a phone per month. According to Allen, "It's a bargain that can't be beat."

That's just the start. All the names and numbers of teachers, administrators, and staff are available online, so there's no need for a printed directory that's out of date the moment it's printed. Today, the phone network's digital directory is up to date and saves another $25,000 a year. …

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