Making a Case for Voice Over Internet Protocol

Portland Public Schools deployment of VoIPs keeps cabling costs low and hopes for improved communication high.

Since the moment that Portland Public Schools in Oregon decided it would deploy Voice over Internet Protocol phones to every classroom in the district, people have asked why we chose VoIP as opposed to a traditional phone system.

A look back at history reveals a lot about the decision. The average age of our 85 schools is 65 years. Not only were they built several decades ago, but also the communication systems in use were mostly intercoms that allowed teachers to contact only the office. Parts and services became obsolete many years ago. In most cases, we would have had to completely rewire a building to add even a traditional phone system.

In most of our schools, there was no way for teachers to call an outside number from their classroom or receive calls if there was an emergency. If parents wanted to contact teachers, they had to call the school's main number and leave a message with the school secretary. Each message was handwritten and, if not lost in a sea of paperwork, ultimately provided to the teacher.

More disconcerting was that if a teacher needed to call 911 in an emergency, often the closest place to call from was the school office. Clearly, this environment was neither safe nor conducive to a 21st century education.

The IP Advantage

A modern phone system should let teachers connect directly with parents and the community. By providing teachers with the ability to receive phone calls or voicemail from parents, we hope they will have a better line of communication, which can only enhance the quality of the students' education.

6,500

The total number of phones the district will install

4,500

The number of VoIP phones that Portland Public Schools had deployed by November

One major benefit of deploying VoIP is that it allows us to keep our cabling costs down. We were able to utilize our existing CAT 5e data network. We also desired a solution that would let us centrally administer the thousands of phones we were deploying.

To improve communication with limited classroom disruption, we wanted parents to have the ability to call a teacher's extension and have that call directed to voicemail. In an emergency, we also wanted the school secretary to be able to send a call through to the classroom.

Ramping Up to UC

To manage such a large-scale project, the district divided its VoIP installation into three phases.

During phase one, the district is implementing dial tone and voicemail to classrooms and deploying auto-attendants to the main numbers for each location.

Phase two will focus on the implementation of a public-address system. This will give building administrators and teachers a better way to communicate in the event of an emergency.

In phase three, the schools will add wall speakers with clocks that can be integrated into a unified communications framework.

Ultimately, VoIP will let us create a unified communications platform with more capabilities for all Portland Public Schools users – from the teacher in the classroom to the administrator in the district office and even to parents at home.

Strategic Lure

A chief appeal of Voice over Internet Protocol is the ability to link multiple components.

For instance, when it begins the third phase of its VoIP project, Portland (Ore.) Public Schools will install wall speakers that will let the district broadcast in areas where there are no phones.

Plus, the current bell-scheduling systems at each school are not standardized and are difficult to manage, so integrating the bells into the phone system during the final phase is another logical choice that Portland made.

Tashatuvango/ThinkStock
Dec 09 2009

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