Peel board dials up new VoIP

In the age of IP, organizations are getting wise to the ways of digital telephony and how it affects their bottom line.

One such organization is the Peel District School Board, Ontario’s second-largest school district, with 221 schools located across more than 700 kilometres. The organization has approximately 12,000 employees, including almost 9,000 instructors, with a student population of 150,000.

The Peel board is in the midst of installing an IP-based system to replace its old PBX.

Peel’s ultimate goal is to improve communications and services for parents, staff and teachers at its head office.

Laura Williams, chief information officer for the Peel board, says the decision to move to a an IP network was motivated by a need to improve the functionality of the board’s network and to find a system that could also feature new application add-ons in the future.

“I feel we’ve replaced the phone system, back where we started and added functionality. The ability to add applications is exciting. When we looked at how to leverage our data network, we looked at a number of vendors and products, and in terms of fit and potential growth, Cisco solutions fit us best.”

Under the Peel board’s old PBX system, the phone network was simply unable to keep up with the explosive growth of the Peel District’s school population. Williams says an example of the problems associated with the PBX was on snow days — typically, 10 per cent of parents calling into the school board would face a cacophony of busy signals or long wait times.

The implementation of IP has changed all this for the Peel board.

Williams says that while installing the new IP network from a technical standpoint was fairly straightforward and smooth, there were quirks in the process along the way.

“We had opportunities to do call processing that we didn’t have before. We were re-designing how calls would be sent to the board. Also, our old phone system was analog and it ran on its own network. Essentially, during implementation we had two phones on everyone’s desk.”

Today, the IP-based phone system has created both immediate and future benefits for the Peel board.

“We have some immediate benefits. Our old phone system was not built for the capacity we needed. We now have 150,000 students. If only ten per cent of parents call in on a snow day, we need capacity for 15,000 calls,” Williams says.

“The system is more reliable and has more capacity. The administration is much simpler.”

Williams also indicates there will be direct and immediate cost savings for the board in areas of administration of networks and one-time-only start-up costs.

“When we’re doing construction, it’s one data line for both computer and your phone. With the old phone system, you had two networks in one building. This reduces costs.

“The Peel board opens four to five schools every year. We created a virtual presence for them, giving them a direct number so parents can phone in, reach the principal, long before the actual building is built.”

One of the Peel board’s other motivations for setting up future add-ons is already here for some teachers employed by the board. Cisco’s SoftPhone technology, which is designed for use with teachers’ laptops, helps teachers make and receive calls and check voice mail while moving around.

“We have a number of teachers who go school to school, and a challenge is keeping in touch with them. Cellphones don’t always work at schools. We’ve given them SoftPhones on their notebook computer.”

So why did the Peel board decide to go with Cisco?

“We did a fair bit of research, we looked at the different vendors in terms of where they were, plans for the next few years in terms of product enhancement, and Cisco had that growth path laid out and was capable of delivering. In terms of cost, they were cost-competitive,” Williams says.

While the Peel board makes a solid case for the adoption of IP, there are potential pitfalls for the organization when it comes to embracing the technology.

Tony Olvet, vice-president, communications practice at IDC Canada, says two potential risks must be considered by any adopter of IP: user resistance to adopting new technology and security threats.

“This is not new or exclusive to IP telephony. The phone service is something that everyone has used, very likely every day, in their working lives. For a minority of users, change of any kind is a concern. Appropriate training is crucial in overcoming user adoption issues,” Olvet says.

“With IP telephony comes the potential threat of viruses, denial-of-service attacks, spam. The provider’s expertise is critical in establishing a secure and stable IP environment. We also know that public sector organizations do not take these types of issues lightly.”

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