Schools Give High Marks to VOIP

By Matthew Kelly  |  Posted 2005-04-18

Schools Give High Marks to VOIP

John Moreno doesnt have the budget to go tilting at IT windmills. As technology director of the Pendergast School District—a high-growth, low-income district on the west side of Phoenix—Moreno knows tight budgets are a way of life. The technology needs of Pendergasts nearly 11,000 students, teachers and administrators may be great, but he just doesnt have the money for risky new technologies.

"Im not one who will rush into something just because somebody says it will work," Moreno said. "Im very cautious. In schools we dont have the money to spend just to spend it."

Still, when Pendergast entered a high-growth phase five years ago (enrollment surged 25 percent between 2001 and 2004), Moreno was determined not to be penny-wise and pound-foolish.

At the start of that expansion wave in 2000, Moreno had two tasks. The first was to devise a modern telecommunications system for the new schools (so far, three and counting) that the district planned to build in coming years.

The second was to overhaul a creaky phone system for Pendergasts nine existing schools and its administrative office. Each site had its own old PBX to manage voice calls, and repairs or changes required hiring support specialists at more than $100 per hour.

Moreno wanted one solution for both problems and wanted it to be a long-term one, even if it cost more at the start. And so he committed to VOIP (voice over IP).

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Five years later, Pendergast has 12 schools (with another to open this fall), all running data and voice traffic on a single network. Trunk lines for long-distance calls have been consolidated into one line running through district headquarters. Moreno plans to roll out services such as electronic hall passes and automated calls to parents when a child is absent.

Best of all, Moreno said he and his 11-person staff can install, manage and troubleshoot the VOIP system themselves.

"The beauty of it was the simplicity of the network layout," Moreno said. "For us, that was the ultimate goal—to be able to support and install these systems. I couldnt put myself back into the situation I had with my old PBX, where we had to call somebody out every time we needed a change."

Pendergast used equipment from Cisco Systems Inc., in San Jose, Calif., for the overhaul, with network design and implementation assistance from Calence Inc., a networking consulting business in nearby Tempe, Ariz.

"Its been a long process for them, but theyve been gradually moving in the right direction" to a simplified, unified voice and data network, said Doug Fink, the Calence vice president who worked with Moreno. "Like a lot of schools, it was low-end—very poor cabling structure and no voice capacity. ... It was really a state of disarray, from a technology perspective."

The VOIP network design is straightforward. Most sites (including each school) have their own Cisco CallManager server to act as a virtual PBX, plus a Cisco router to manage data flow and QOS (quality of service) and a Cisco Catalyst switch to host VOIP-enabled phones. Some smaller sites with fewer phones omit the CallManager, and the router manages voice traffic. All the sites connect to one main trunk line at the district office, which acts as the network hub and manages the firewall between the district and the outside world.

Pendergast uses approximately 700 Cisco IP phones, Moreno said. Each school could have 60 or 70 phones, while administrative offices have phones as necessary for the staff at each location, Moreno said.

Next Page: A proof-of-concept network becomes reality.

A Proof

-of-Concept Network Becomes Reality">

The first VOIP system was installed as a proof of concept at a new school building that opened in September 2000, Moreno said. Another new school followed suit in 2001, and in the 2002-2003 school year, Pendergast and Calence migrated 11 more sites to the network, including all the older schools and the school administration offices.

Moreno said the implementation itself was relatively straightforward. New schools were built with the VOIP network in place. Older schools had their data networks tweaked during summer and school breaks to accommodate the new voice traffic, but none required extensive new cabling or similar renovations.

Caring for thousands of students every day, Pendergast officials did have heightened concerns about making the network absolutely fail-safe in case of emergency. To that end, each school still has a traditional copper-wire connection for 911 service and an uninterruptible power supply in its telecom closet to provide at least 15 minutes of power in the event of a blackout.

"Calence put together a very solid solution in getting those items addressed," Moreno said. It did take several years of installing VOIP systems to understand the network operations fully, "but now were there," he said.

The next step for expanding the Pendergast network will be the various software applications it could add to the network—which, Moreno said, are overwhelming right now. "Were not fully implemented ... because there are so many people writing so many different tools," he said.

In September, the district will begin using the VOIP system to manage paging and bell ringing to change classes. Moreno said he is also exploring options such as an electronic hall pass (where one teacher can e-mail an alert to another that a student is on the way and the second teachers phone will flash a notice) or an automated caller to notify parents when a child has not shown up at school.

Moreno does use monitoring tools to ensure the district has sufficient bandwidth (all sites have T-1 connections), but he said he believes Pendergast has enough pipe size for now, especially since QOS prevents data backlogs from overwhelming voice traffic.

"Theyre nowhere near stressing the system [capacity]. ... They can certainly add additional servers into their clusters," Fink said. "They have several different options to scale up that should maintain the district for some time."

Moreno calculated that the district now saves at least $25,000 annually on repair and maintenance, since he no longer needs to hire pricey PBX technicians. Improved efficiency with voice mail, consolidated long-distance lines and future applications such as homework hot lines all validate his VOIP bet as well, he said.

But while the bells and whistles are nice, Moreno said, "that wasnt the initial drive in making the decision. What really made the decision was the ease of management—and I knew we wouldnt be able to manage it all right out of the chute. But it was the biggest factor."

Matthew Kelly is a freelance writer in Somerville, Mass. He can be reached at

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