The first flakes have yet to fall there, but Peel District School Board‘s telephone system is already prepared for snow days.
Earlier this year, the board installed a Unified Communications suite from Cisco Systems Canada, which includes a voice-over-IP system that replaced its aging private branch exchange (PBX). That upgrade is expected to help deal with the flood of calls school receive during inclement weather, according to CIO Laura Williams.
“We have 145,000 students, so even if we only had five to seven per cent of parents call in, that could be 10,000 calls,” she said. “Our PBX would just die . . . it was quite old, and when we took it down for good, somebody joked that it died owing us nothing.”
The board had to have the system in place by September, given that the beginning of the school year is also one of its peak call periods, Williams said. Since the upgrade, call time has been reduced from about 45 seconds to five seconds.
Peel District School Board has 230 schools located across 776 sq. km., but new schools are being built all the time, Williams said. That’s one of the reasons the board is hoping to use the Unified Communications suite to centralize some services, including voice mail.
“The bricks and mortar schools may not be physically there until August, but parents need a communication point well beyond that,” Williams explained. The Cisco gear allows the board to route voice mail and call processing back to the head office, so that interested parents can call the “local number” of a new school and have their questions answered. “It’s giving us a virtual school presence. They wouldn’t know they’re not phoning someone across the street.”
Another pilot project involves equipping resource teachers who travel from one school to another to use a Cisco IP-based SoftPhone through a laptop computer to communicate.
“Cell phones often don’t work when you are deep inside a school. It can also be very expensive,” Williams said. “They’re already carrying a notebook, and the idea is they connect into the network and have presence. Their phone number doesn’t change, so you can place a call to them, regardless of what school they’re in.”
Cisco Systems of Canada director of public sector marketing Brantz Myers said early adopters of Unified Communications tend to be organizations whose PBX “paperwork” – leasing payments, tax writedowns – have matured. Others tend to evaluate IP when they are about to build a new facility. “Another camp are those who see such tremendous advantages they’re willing to leave money on the table from an old voice network,” he said.
Williams said the board’s deployment went smoothly in part because it wasn’t an all-or-nothing switchover. “What a perfect implementation – we could run a parallel system with an analogue and a digital phone on everyone’s desk. Because VoIP runs on a digital network, you can do that.”
Myers said the flexibility is important for many customers. “We knew when we first launched this technology that we wouldn’t see people doing clean sweeps of IP in the first go,” he said. “It had to connect to legacy voice systems.”
Peel District School Board has also set up 12 internal service call centres that will allow the school board to offer caller self-service capabilities, Williams said.