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School district cuts cost, gains features after graduating to VoIP

Minnesota's Lakeville School District revamped its entire network. Now, all 18 buildings have VoIP. But don't be fooled by the success, the network administrator was extremely nervous.

Patrick Rateliff was afraid of echoes, dropped calls and latency.

And who can blame him? Rateliff, network administrator for the Lakeville School District in Minnesota, was charged with rolling out a $600,000 VoIP system to the massive 10,000 student-, 1,500 staff- member school system.

"I was pretty nervous about the Voice over IP," he said.

But the rollout went well, Rateliff said, despite having only one summer to get roughly 2,000 phones in 18 different buildings up and running. "Things just worked," he chuckled, quickly adding that his fears never came to fruition.

Lakeville schools went before the public on a referendum to fund some technology upgrades last year. With the money, the district revamped its entire network, switching from legacy to fiber for most of the buildings and T1 lines for the remainder. Once that task was completed in June, no time was wasted getting ready for VoIP, which was all set to go in August, before the students and staff returned to school.

"Once we had that piece done, adding VoIP wasn't that difficult," he said.

It had been several years since Lakeville updated its phone system. They had one PBX, which served one of two high schools, and the remainder of the buildings used a system from Frontier.

"The costs were fairly high," Rateliff said. "And we wanted to consolidate everything into one phone system."

While he couldn't recall the exact number off the top of his head, Rateliff said the school district is seeing "significant savings" since making the VoIP leap.

And along with cost savings come some added features the old phone systems lacked, such as unified messaging and enhanced 911 features. Under the old system, a 911 call would send emergency crews to a specific building, the new system can help them pinpoint exactly where in the building the call originated from.

Now, the only thing the school district uses analog lines for is faxes. There are still a few old phones scattered about for emergencies in case the network goes down, which happened once or twice early on, but hasn't been a problem since.

"We had some instances of downtime due to switch failure," he said, adding that some outbound calls were also getting lost when VoIP was first deployed.

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One of the biggest hurdles, Rateliff said, was explaining to the staff that along with switching to a new phone system, all of their phone numbers also changed. But the entire staff has been trained and the reluctance waned. The staff has now started to embrace the VoIP system.

While the Lakeville School District looked at several different vendors for their setup, including Avaya and Cisco Systems Inc., the final decision came down to price. Rateliff said the district put the system out to bid and got back estimates ranging from $600,000 to $1.3 million.

"Aside from the price, it was like comparing apples and apples," he said.

The district ultimately chose Infoblox appliances for its network identity infrastructure, which includes integrated DNS and DHCP, out-of-the-box RADIUS authentication and robust and simple GUI and delegation capabilities. The VoIP system was rounded out with equipment from Mitel Networks.

Overall, Rateliff said, the system meets his expectations fully. He rated it an "eight or nine" out of 10. The only thing Rateliff said he would do differently is allow more time for everything to be deployed. The rush of upgrading the network then adding VoIP immediately after was a stressful crunch.

"I would've spent more time making sure the network was ready," he said. "That's the only thing that I might have done differently."

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