National Ballet School pirouettes towards wireless LAN

Canada’s National Ballet School is taking a grand jeté into the world of wireless.

The project is a joint government and privately funded initiative to develop a state-of-the-art communications infrastructure for training dance students.

NEC is collaborating with the school on Project Grand Jeté to design a system that will instantly contact emergency services during a crisis, simultaneously broadcast upcoming events across campus and provide voicemail notification for students using digital signage technology. Digital signage will also allow the school to display scheduling changes and, eventually, even performances.

“We have 84,000 square feet of space, but when we’re finished it’s going to be 265,000 square feet, so this is a large building,” said Larry Beevers, head of property and operations with the National Ballet School in Toronto. “In the old school we used two notice boards, but this building is half a block.”

The customized IP system, developed by NEC, includes a wireless LAN and wireless voice system that can be accessed three floors below ground level. It will support 270 full- and part-time staff members, 34 teachers in training, 650 part-time dance students and 175 full-time professional ballet students from age 11 to 20.

The National Ballet School was founded in 1959 to feed into the National Ballet of Canada. Now an independent organization, it trains dancers, teachers, choreographers and artistic directors who work in more than 50 professional dance companies around the world. The old school was sub-standard, with low ceilings and not enough space to practice dance movements, Beever said. Twelve years ago the school proposed building a facility three times the size of what it had. It ended up with half of the old CBC site in downtown Toronto, which it’s now turning into a state-of-the-art facility. The project began in the summer of 2002 and is expected to be complete in September 2007. The old site has just been demolished and is being rebuilt into residences.

The school has strict rules about telephone use: students are not allowed to bring their cell phones to class and they don’t have telephones in their residence rooms. Instead, there are pay phones provided for their use. But the school has 20 full-time international students, so pay phones aren’t always convenient.

NEC is providing messaging with its NEAXMail AD-64 unified messaging system and BlueFire VC digital signage solution. Each student gets a voicemail box to check messages, and NEC is designing a display application where students will be notified on a message board or something similar if they have a message, said Beevers.

“In the past they’d use the house mother and a message pad,” said Quincy Mittertreiner, director of enterprise sales for the Canadian region with NEC Unified Solutions Inc. in Calgary. “I don’t know if the urgency could be relayed, so the voicemail system is very useful in that regard.”

The school is also using NEC’s SP-30 Soft Phone IP terminals. Every year the school conducts an audition tour in 20 or more cities across Canada to recruit students for its full-time program. The audition tour is the lifeblood of the program, so being able to stay connected is critical – and using IP saves money. Recruiters are able to log onto their computer and, using a headset, check voicemail and make long-distance calls over IP, as though they’re making a local call.

In order to provide students and faculty with greater access to emergency services, the school is using NEC’s DtermÒ PSIII wireless phone mobility solution for campus-wide seamless roaming and NEC’s Univerge wireless LAN with BlueFire Ethernet switches for its data infrastructure.

For security guards, maintenance staff and IT staff, cell phones will only work one floor down – if they’re lucky – since the building is made of concrete. The PSIII phones resolve this issue, but are only being used as an in-building solution. “If there is an incident those phones are group-paged,” said Mittertreiner. “We can also provide messaging on the display as to what the incident is about.”

It was essential, however, that whatever was plugged into the main site was deliverable to the other site. By sharing applications between buildings, the school will save $500-$600 a month, said Beevers. “As a non-profit organization, that’s just the beginning – we hope – of where we can save money.”

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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