Las Vegas schools mix IP, digital communications

FRAMINGHAM (12/05/2003) - The public schools in Las Vegas are nearing the midpoint of a backbone network installation that will support one of the largest IP-enabled phone systems deployed to date anywhere in the world -- a communications upgrade that's expected to cost a total of US$31 million.

By early January, half of the 289 schools in the Clark County School District will be connected to an IP-based metropolitan-area network (MAN) based on Alcatel SA's OmniPCX Enterprise technology, according to Philip Brody, the school system's chief technology officer. The MAN rollout is budgeted at $15 million and should be completed next November.

Clark County, the nation's sixth largest school district, is spending an additional $16 million to outfit its offices and every classroom with about 27,000 Alcatel phone sets that can operate in both digital and IP modes. About 5,000 phones have been installed, and Brody said that phase will take another two years to finish.

The MAN and the dual-mode phone system are designed to support the school system's explosive growth. The district, which serves 268,000 students and has 30,000 workers, is adding a new school at the rate of one per month.

"This is a crazy place, not just because it's Vegas, but this is also an incredible juggernaut of education and technology," Brody said.

The phones will be used primarily in digital mode in order to take advantage of digital wiring that was recently installed in two-thirds of Clark County's schools, although some of them will be IP-based, Brody said. In addition, the fiber-optic links and Gigabit Ethernet switches being built into the MAN support IP.

The hybrid plan was recommended by a consulting firm three years ago, Brody said. St. Louis-based Dietrich Lockard Group Inc. said the school district could save $2 million per year by installing a converged voice and data network.

Another advantage of an IP-enabled system is that teachers will have a means of making emergency calls from their classrooms, but incoming calls can be routed elsewhere to avoid class interruptions. "We never had a public meeting about this project where the need to have a 'do not disturb' feature didn't come up," Brody said.

To protect against potential network failures, every building will retain one line to the circuit-switched public telephone system, he said.

Paris-based Alcatel's networking hardware and software was sold to Clark County by Verizon Communications in New York. Verizon has also provided project management and installation support, according to Brody.

Elizabeth Herrel, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., said the predictions of millions of dollars in annual savings are realistic because the new system will require less switching hardware at each location. "IP telephony is a practical solution, especially in places such as schools or banks where there are many offices, classrooms and branches," Herrel said.

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