Not long ago, teachers' resources were confined to what was available in their schools or community libraries. Students were exposed only to the classes, teachers and peers in their buildings. A school's links to the outside world were limited to field trips.
Now, innovative technology is opening new worlds. Teachers and students can browse libraries across the globe from their classrooms, or pose questions to experts on any topic and receive answers instantly. Parents can connect to school message centers, and students can get their homework assignments on a notebook that talks back.
With local-area networks (LAN), wide-area networks (WAN) and PCs, the Internet brings almost unlimited information to teachers and students. The challenge no longer is extending the reach of our connections, but extending how much we accomplish once connected.
For this technology to function most effectively, schools need a single districtwide communications system that is compatible with their existing infrastructure, but at the same time is capable of evolving to embrace new technologies.
To do this, schools must fundamentally re-engineer the independent nature of their existing networks - voice, data, video and Internet. Administrators should be looking at combining and consolidating them into one comprehensive connection.
This connection should be powerful, versatile and flexible enough to carry the combined load of these individual networks, yet still offer the possibilities inherent within each. Simply put, the quantity of information must not come at the expense of the quality of the system. The system that shows increasing promise for this technology challenge is an IP (Internet protocol) telephony platform.
WHAT IS IP TELEPHONY? IP telephony means different things to different people. If it takes place in the local area network, it's frequently called LAN telephony. In a wide-area network, it may be called packet telephony or Voice-over-IP (VoIP) or Fax-over-IP (FoIP).
The next generation of IP telephony applications will allow users to make calls using a standard telephone and a centralized Internet connection - the Internet link replaces the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN). Schools will make this centralized Internet connection via Internet gateway servers. These servers will connect a private branch exchange (PBX) to the Internet through one connection, allowing any user of that PBX to make calls over the Internet, eliminating the need for each user to have an independent Internet connection.
To place a call, a caller would dial the number, just like making a call through the PSTN. The PBX would route the call through the Internet gateway via a programmed trunk interface, and the gateway would contact another gateway at the site being called.
The public telephone network remains the one, true ubiquitous worldwide network, but its downsides are emerging. Transmitting a voice conversation over a narrow-bandwidth, circuit-switch networks cost more than three times as much as sending it over the Internet. With IP telephony, calls - local or long distance - are possible at a fraction of the cost.
Internet telephony solutions will permit users to place long-distance telephone calls over the Internet using either their PCs or standard telephones. The costs of adding, moving and changing phone lines disappear, and setup and administration are simplified.
Users can get access to features such as unified messaging, auto attendant, conferencing and computer telephony integration. And because the system runs Ethernet right to the phone, people can be completely mobile. Educators can take their phones to classrooms, offices, homes, from one building to another - all they have to do is plug it into an Ethernet port, and the system will recognize them. Therefore, they can keep the same phone number and all preset features.
WHY IP? It's advantageous for schools to include as many functions over a single wire as possible. Most school districts will find they have sufficient bandwidth to do so. IP voice is an open, mainstream solution that has been endorsed heavily by major data product manufacturers.
An IP phone system is a change from a closed-end and centralized switching model. It simplifies a voice-and-data infrastructure into one distributed set of equipment, one network management system and one set of professional skills necessary to manage the network.
To a school district, IP telephony can mean faster application development and deployment. A school can reduce costs and still provide voice connections in every classroom and a new range of sophisticated services.
Administrators, teachers and parents increasingly are demanding simplicity and convenience. A system that relieves them of the time-consuming chore of checking multiple systems for e-mail, voice mail and faxes holds great promise.
Unified messaging solutions enable voice mail, fax and e-mail to be forwarded to a universal inbox. With one e-mail program, users can view faxes and e-mail, and listen to voice mail. Each administrator and teacher not only has one universal inbox to retrieve messages, but also has a single phone number that serves as the delivery vehicle for these multiple message types.
Sending long-distance faxes across the Internet could save school districts a great deal of money. The extension of the virtual phone through the TCP/IP overlay network allows any model of PBX phone to be exported, with no loss of features or functions.
ENSURING QUALITY Because of the high quality of today's standard phone service, people take voice quality and reliability for granted. They expect the same performance from IP telephony. Districts need to make sure that the the quality of voice traffic on this type of networking is not degraded to a point that's intolerable.
The cost-saving benefits of IP telephony are just the tip of the iceberg of the technology's potential. The potential for advanced applications and enhanced services is the attraction of IP telephony for the future.
As the quality of the voice transmissions becomes more reliable and the price and added features continue to be attractive, IP telephony will win over more customers in the coming years. Parks Associates, a Dallas research firm that specializes in technology, predicts that the volume of calls using IP telephony will mushroom in the coming years.
In a June 2000 report, "Packet Switching Telephony," the firm said that by 2004, IP telephony will carry more than 114 billion minutes of worldwide long-distance and serve more than 3.5 million local service customers.
By comparison, IP telephony carried 2.5 billion minutes of calls in 1999.
A 1999 report from the International Data Corporation, "IP Telephony Services: Market Review and Forecast, 1998-2004," is even more optimistic. It projects 135 billion IP telephony minutes in 2004.
The report says businesses have been slow to embrace IP because of concerns about quality and the large number of digits users need to dial on an IP system. But the technology is gradually resolving those problems.