Voice Over IP – Is It Right For Your School?

By Adam Turner.

As schools work hard to prepare today’s students for the world of tomorrow, the last thing they want to worry about is an excessive phone bill.

Western Sydney’s Arndell Anglican College and Campbelltown’s St Peters Anglican Primary School are two very different schools facing very similar challenges when it comes to telecommunications. Parents’ growing reliance on mobile phones has seen each school’s call costs soar in recent years. Both schools turned to Voice over IP to dramatically reduce their phone bill, but along the way, each discovered many other benefits in moving away from traditional phone networks.

Voice over IP (or VoIP) involves sending phone calls over data networks used by computers, rather than over traditional telephone lines. Such calls can run over the internet or over dedicated data lines to ensure calls sound as good as calls over a normal phone line.

One benefit of VoIP is cheaper rates for local, national, international and mobile calls – with immediate cost savings which deliver a quick return on investment. However, in the long run the true benefits of VoIP come from greater control over your phone system – making it easy to activate new numbers, move phones between desks and enjoy advanced features such as diverting calls between handsets to ensure they are answered by the first available person.

Almost half of St Peters’ outgoing calls each month are to mobile phones.“Previously our call costs were shooting up astronomically,” says school IT manager Seth Mayo. “Switching to VoIP with low untimed price for local and national calls, plus lower mobile call costs with no flagfall, means the new system pays for itself in less than a year.”

Meanwhile Arndell Anglican College has halved its call costs by switching to a VoIP service, according to school IT manager Rohan Smith.

“Rather than spending more and more on outgoing calls, those savings have gone towards improving the school’s data networks and increasing the flexibility of our phone system,” Smith says.

Such immediate savings obviously make VoIP an easy sell to the Principal and school board, but both IT managers feel that the advanced functionality of their new phone systems delivers the true long-term benefits to their schools. The flexibility of VoIP also meant both schools could deploy it alongside their existing phone system, giving them a chance to get everything running smoothly before a seamless switchover.

Rather than connect its old desk phones to the new VoIP system, St Peters opted to swap them for new VoIP handsets in order to make the most of the new
phone system.

“I recently moved office to the other side of the school,” Mayo says. “Previously we would have had to pay a call-out fee to get someone to reconfigure the telephone system. Thanks to the flexibility of VoIP, I just moved my old phone to my new desk and plugged it in. It was up and working straight away, on the same number, which saves the school both time and money.”

Mayo also praises “advanced features, such as configuring several phones to ring at once and for the call to jump around until it’s answered. We probably could have achieved this with the old system but it would have required a technician to come onsite. With the new system I have access to an online administration panel which lets me easily reconfigure the system with a few clicks. I can even set up new phone numbers within an hour, whereas your traditional telco could take weeks to hook up a new line.”

Meanwhile staff at Arndell Anglican College are enjoying the benefits of a flexible voicemail system tied into their VoIP service. “Adding a voicemail system has reduced the call load coming through main reception,” Smith says. “VoIP has provided staff with a direct line and a voicemail inbox. They can even receive their voicemail as an email attachment, giving them extra flexibility to deal
with calls.”

When evaluating services, Smith found dedicated VoIP providers generally offered more flexibility and better technical support than internet service providers that offer VoIP on the side. It was this flexibility which allowed the two schools to take very different approaches to their VoIP rollouts.

“Dealing with a dedicated VoIP provider, you’re talking to somebody who actually understands the product and all the value-adds that you want to get out of the service,” Smith says. “That extra level of service makes a big difference when you’re discussing a solution and business case. We really value the ability to be able to talk to our VoIP provider’s engineering department and customise the service to meet our needs.”

“When speaking to ISPs which offer VoIP on the side, they tended to offer a simple packaged VoIP product. If they did offer extras features, they were expensive. Specialist VoIP providers offered many of these extras as standard. They were far more flexible in terms of porting existing numbers over, for example.”

Another example of such customisation was the close cooperation between some VoIP providers and ISPs.

“Our ISP and VoIP provider use the same data centres, so the ISP was able to set aside some of the schools’ bandwidth as a dedicated data channel – so our VoIP traffic doesn’t mingle with our other internet traffic. Tailoring that kind of solution for us means we get excellent call quality,” Smith says.

Some VoIP providers have also branched out to offer ADSL broadband services. This was particularly useful for St Peters Anglican Primary School, which is located quite close to its local telephone exchange and thus has access to high-speed ADSL2+.

“Rather than running the VoIP traffic over our existing internet connection, our VoIP provider offered us a naked ADSL2+ service exclusively for our VoIP traffic. It’s only $40 per month, which is great value when you consider it gives us excellent call quality for all the virtual phone lines running into the school,” Mayo says.

The flexibility of VoIP allows organisations to ditch their traditional PABX switchboard and configure their entire phone system via the internet, but such a model doesn’t suit everyone. Both schools opted to retain an onsite PABX and link it to their service. Arndell took the opportunity to upgrade to a new Cisco voice system while St Peters stuck with its Asterisk open-source VoIP server.

“The majority of VoIP providers we spoke to offered cloud-based servers,” says St Peters’ Mayo. “This meant ditching our in-house phone system and running everything from the internet. Most of them were rather pushy when it came to using the cloud, which might have made sense for them but didn’t suit our needs. That was one area where our VoIP provider really shone through, it was prepared to listen to our requirements and tailor a solution rather than pushing the services it wanted to sell”

“We’ve been so impressed with Voice over IP that we’re about to switch to a virtual fax service as well, which also offers significant savings by switching from paper to PDFs delivered straight into our inboxes. It’s that kind of flexibility, cost-savings and improved workflow that makes these kinds of technologies a perfect fit for our school.”

Adam Turner is a freelance technology journalist. Both schools featured in this article have VoIP solutions provided by MyNetFone. For more information
about MyNetFone and the solutions available, call 1300 386 571 or visit www.mynetfone.com.au/business

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Education Technology Solutions has been created to inspire and encourage the use of technology in education. Through its content, Education Technology Solutions seeks to showcase cutting edge products and practices with a view to expanding the boundaries and raising the standards of education curricula. It introduces teachers and IT staff to the latest products, services and developments in education technology with a view to providing practical how-to guidance designed to facilitate the integration of those products and services into the school environment in the most productive and beneficial manner possible.
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