Dialing for Dollars
The Greenville County School District saved
money by rewiring its schools for the digital age.
Every time the phone rang or a teacher made a call, Lonnie Luce knew the Greenville County School District was throwing money away. As deputy superintendent, he saw costs for the district’s antiquated phone network spiral as its technology fell further behind the times. “The costs were out of control,” he says. “Because we were opening schools as fast as we could, communications was becoming one of our schools’ biggest expenses.”
The largest school district in South Carolina, Greenville took a big step into the future of telecommunications by updating its expensive and inflexible phone network to a digital infrastructure. It took some money and a bit of rewiring, but it turned out to be a win-win for the district. Even though the student body and the number of employees continue to rise, the system is cutting the costs of communications; it’s easier to manage and it has a slew of useful new features that encourage the free flow of communication between teachers, students, and parents. Now, when the phone rings, Luce couldn’t be happier.
PHONE CALLS FOR FREE
Based on the voice over Internet protocol, or VOIP (voyp) for short, Internet telephony can make you forget everything you know—and hate—about the hundred-year-old phone network. That’s because it’s as close to a free phone booth as it gets. At its purest, the system uses the Internet’s free digital wires to connect a call to or from any phone in the world rather than using the phone network’s analog wires. Companies like Vonage, Skype, and hundreds of local cable TV companies use VOIP every day to deliver quality phone service at cut-rate prices.
Sure, it sounds great, but in 2003, Luce and the Greenville board didn’t think the technology and the Internet were a reliable enough basket to put all their communications eggs into. So, with the help of Cisco engineers, they created a hybrid system that brings 21st-century technology to the district’s phones but maintains a lifeline to the traditional phone network. All calls between schools, district offices, and facilities use VOIP and cost nothing, but outside calls connect via what are called primary rate interfaces to the phone network. These PRIs are nothing more than switches that convert calls from digital to analog format so the phone company can connect them.
VOIP works by breaking up a conversation into tiny packets of voice data that, with destination info, are sent out onto a broadband connection. They are reassembled at the other end to deliver crisp, clean audio that’s on a par with, and sometimes better than, the phone network. Because the conversation is broken up into thousands of bite-size pieces, it’s next to impossible for someone to listen in, making those inevitable confidential calls about discipline problems, grades, or truancy more secure. The only requirement for making this system work is that every school have a highly reliable broadband connection, to allow the call data to move smoothly back and forth.
Call it a sign of the times, but millions of people, businesses, and schools are hanging up on Ma Bell and the traditional phone network in favor of VOIP phones. For those who are tired of unreasonable monthly fees, high taxes, and a dearth of 21st-century features, VOIP seems a good alternative. While few except computer hackers and geeks had heard of this technique a decade ago, Washington, D.C.–based market analysts TeleGeography think the number of Internet phone connections will more than double by 2010. At that point, they forecast, there will be 18 million VOIP phones in use in the United States.
Of those, Greenville’s 7,100 phones seem like a drop in the bucket. Yet it’s one of the biggest school districts to convert to digital phones. “It just makes sense for schools to do this,” claims Phylis Hawkins, education solutions manager at Cisco. “They get more for less.”
As far as Greenville’s phones went, the situation on the ground couldn’t have been worse. Each of the district’s schools and facilities had its own private branch exchange (PBX) switchboard and dedicated phone lines. Phone lines were at a premium and many classrooms weren’t wired for telephones, making communications between administrators, teachers, students, and parents hit or miss. On top of that, Luce remembers that the system was a nightmare to manage, because each building was a separate little communications silo with different equipment and wiring.
MORE THAN JUST TALK
The process of rewiring the Greenville schools began in 2003, when voters passed a $1 billion bond issue to update and refurbish 70 of the district’s oldest schools over a four-year period. The bond money and grants from the state paid for a fiber-optic network and a data loop that linked each school, replacing the district’s inadequate T1 data line. The new network has built-in video, and some facilities have wireless networks. To streamline data access, the district consolidated its 84 servers into two systems. Each classroom got a VOIP phone and every teacher got her own telephone number.
The network that Cisco put together allows Greenville’s 101 sites to talk to each other for free. It’s as if they now operate their own internal phone network. All told, it cost $3 million to create the network. “Schools are usually a step or two behind on the technology curve,” observes Cisco’s Hawkins. “Using Voice-over-IP phones lets them catch up with business in a big way.”
Using a VOIP phone at the Greenville district is just like using a regular phone, only the handsets have the power of digital communications. For example, if a district administrator is visiting a school, her calls can be forwarded there. Or, if a teacher is on the phone with a parent, his incoming calls are automatically routed to another line or to a message center.
The best part is what Cisco calls unified messaging. The recorded messages are available not only for playback on the phone but also in the user’s PC in-box, along with incoming faxes and e-mails. “In other words, unified messaging puts it all together in one place,” says Hawkins. “It couldn’t be easier.”
The system comes into its own when the district needs to notify parents of an event, a school closing, or an absence. If a student is absent from class, the SchoolMessenger application dials the child’s home and plays a recorded message informing parents of the absence. This used to be done individually by each school, but it’s now centralized, more timely, and automatic. “The calls go out earlier and are more reliable,” says Greenville’s Luce.
An added bonus is that the new network can handle video as well as audio. The system sends streaming video content right to every classroom in the district, and puts video cameras in the offices of Greenville’s principals, so their calls to each other and to district administrators can include face time. The next step is to start having multiperson videoconferences, a key innovation for a district that covers 800 square miles.
Progress usually comes at a cost, and Greenville’s revamped telephone network required a slew of new phone numbers, so every phone directory was instantly obsolete. To keep parents from hanging up, the district set up a comprehensive phone book with all the new numbers. It probably won’t be used however, because the digital phones can find anybody’s number. Says Hawkins, “With VOIP phones, you don’t need the old paper directory anymore. All you do is type the first few letters of the person’s name into the phone’s keypad, and the possible matches show up on the phone’s screen.” After that, it’s just a matter of picking the right one, and the phone then dials it.
The VOIP system also simplifies adding new schools to the network because the buildings don’t need internal phone wiring and a PBX. It is simply a matter of plugging the phones into network jacks. With five more schools scheduled to open later this year, Luce is in the home stretch of Greenville’s VOIP project.
Because the district no longer pays for so many phone lines and internal calls are free, it saves a bundle.
Instead of an estimated $830,000 in charges, plus $230,000 in maintenance for the old network, the new system costs $317,000 to operate, plus $45,000 a year in maintenance. “At first, we thought we’d save about $400,000 a year,” recalls Greenville’s Luce. “But we didn’t realize how much of our phone traffic was internal, which now costs us nothing.” All told, Greenville has chalked up savings of $700,000 a year compared to the old phone system.
Like anything connected with education, the real value of this advance is measured by how it assists in instruction, not by dollars and cents. “Sure it cuts our costs,” concludes Greenville’s Luce. “And we’re funneling those savings into instructional technology to motivate our kids to learn.”