Over the past decade or so, an increasing number of businesses have been drawn to the virtues of VoIP. Now school districts are making the switch, as well. Not only does VoIP help cut down on expenses, it also brings security, giving teachers and staff members the ability to report emergencies anywhere in the school with a VoIP solution.

When looking for a VoIP provider, it’s important to exercise due diligence, says Bret Longberry, information technology center director for the Metropolitan Educational Council.

“Do your homework,” says Longberry. “It’s important to do research. Business managers and technology people need to make sure that the provider has the capability to deliver what it promises.”

Smart Business spoke with Longberry, Robert West, account executive at Ohio.net and Bill Swartzmiller, executive director of North Central Ohio Computer Cooperative about the advantages of using VoIP in an educational setting.

How does VoIP help schools?

It allows schools to take advantage of their data circuits and helps them avoid some of the recurring charges that are associated with traditional telephone systems. For most schools, VoIP can lead to tremendous cost savings over the long run.

It is an economically sound way to have telephones in the classroom. This is important for two reasons: security purposes and the ability to contact parents immediately. Oftentimes, teachers would like to contact a parent, but they have to put it off until they have access to a phone. Also, parents can reach teachers. VoIP is a very valuable tool in the classrooms for both security and student achievement.

What is the purpose of centralized call management?

Schools can be free from purchasing the servers and software required for self management of a phone system, whether it be a traditional or VOIP system. Management of a phone system is traditionally expensive and time consuming. With centralized call management, services can be provided to multiple schools, saving money. Also, by contracting with a firm with in-house expertise to maintain the phones, districts receive the necessary high-end technical support that they lack.

Centralized call management allows an organization to add versatility to individual schools. It also allows them to aggregate the SIP Trunks which can turn into a cost savings for the schools. For example, let’s say a school has four lines and a fifth call comes in. With centralized call management, the call could be aggregated across a different trunk, whereas if it didn’t have centralized call management and had the lines going directly to them, the fifth caller would receive a busy signal and wouldn’t be able to connect.

How is utilizing VoIP a good use of technical resources?

Most school districts in Ohio are struggling with how to fund everyday operations, let alone technology. As a result, they are finding it increasingly necessary to outsource technology functions. With hosted VoIP solutions, a district might not have to have a staff member onsite to take care of the voice systems.

There is very little hardware on the local level — you just need to add handsets and possibly a networking switch. The system is easy to manage, so you can free up a full-time equivalent position to retain a teacher. Schools have connectivity in their classrooms so they don’t need to install more lines. VoIP allows them to use the Internet data lines for voice.

Individual schools don’t necessarily have to have technical knowledge of how to run and operate a Cisco CallManager. An expert outside adviser that is flush with technical aptitude and knowledge can work hand-in-hand with a district and provide support.

What are some future uses of VoIP for brick-and-mortar schools or e-schools?

Many schools sill have not taken advantage of VoIP technologies. As hosted solutions become more dependable and accepted, we’ll see more schools going that direction. VoIP eliminates the need for traditional phone lines and equipment refresh so the cost savings for a district can be significant. As districts continue to tighten their belts, they will want to take a hard look at hosted VoIP solutions.

We’re one step away from having video over the phones. Eventually we will have videoconferencing services, as well as voice. The primary reason videoconferencing hasn’t gained traction in schools is because different locations have to be on the same schedule, and it’s difficult for schools to coordinate schedules. However, with E-schools, teachers often work from home. VoIP allows students to contact multiple teachers in different locations.

How can a school make a smooth transition from traditional telephone services to VoIP?

Do a complete inventory of your existing lines. Sometimes there are more phone lines than people realize, such as in an elevator or a life-saving device that requires an outside line. It’s important do an audit of your phone lines.

Schools have connectivity. They just need an outside expert to put a gateway in and buy the phones. They can be up in a week. The exact time it takes to get up and running depends on whether your advisers are porting numbers or obtaining new phone numbers. The typical timeframe to port a number is roughly 30 days and if they are getting a new phone number, it can be done in a much shorter period of time.

What advice would you give to schools about selecting a VoIP provider?

Look at the VoIP provider’s presence in the market. Take a look at their current customer list, talk to some of its current customers and find out if they’re happy with their service.

Find somebody that you are comfortable with and who you trust will be able to provide you with the services you need when you request them. Also work with someone who has experience serving educational institutions, who understand the purpose of the phones and how they will be utilized.

Robert West is an account executive at Ohio.net. Reach him at (330) 658-7581 or rwest@ohio.net.

Insights Telecommunications is brought to you by Ohio.net

Published in Columbus