Landlines are out and internet-based phones are in for many schools this year, as the modernized E-rate program begins scaling back funds for traditional phone service.
Discount rates for long-distance calling, cell phones and other services will drop by 20 percent every year starting this year, as determined in the July 2014 E-rate Modernization Order adopted by the FCC. E-rate funds for email, web hosting, paging and phone directory assistance were completely eliminated this year.
The program’s monetary focus is now on expanding Wi-Fi networks in schools and libraries.
To prepare for the loss of phone-line funding, many districts are switching to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services. VoIP is a technology that allows people to make voice calls using a broadband internet connection instead of a regular phone line.
“We don’t collect data on how many schools have gone to VoIP, but there was evidence in the record that schools are turning to VoIP as a cost-effective alternative,” says FCC spokesperson Mark Wigfield.
What VoIP offers
The service allows users to make calls directly from computers, special VoIP phones or traditional phones connected to an adapter. VoIP also works over Wi-Fi. It can offer cost benefits to districts, providers say.
Landlines require on-campus equipment, which means future maintenance and upgrades, along with support staff. But with VoIP, districts use already-existing data circuits but don’t pay for phone lines or lots of hardware.
“It’s a clear dollars-and-cents decision,” says Lester Brown, director of technology at Washougal School District, a suburban district of 3,000 students located outside Portland, Oregon.
Washougal’s current system of five phone lines costs $212 per month. It began a switch to VoIP in one non-instructional district building in March. The VoIP monthly cost for six lines is estimated at only $165, and includes caller ID, voicemail and an automated attendant. The one-time upfront cost for the VoIP phones was $260, which the district will recoup in six months.
“We’re excited to bring much better, more modern services to our building, and feel that the VoIP phones are a great way to do that without a huge investment in equipment,” Brown says. Administrators interested in VoIP must ensure they have the internet capacity to host a phone service, he says.
If a school district’s internet connection is weak, a VoIP service can automatically forward calls to a cell phone or home phone to avoid any disruption, according to Nextiva, a VoIP communications provider.
In December, the FCC raised the E-rate spending cap from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion. It will provide $1 billion per year for Wi-Fi connections in 2015 and 2016, which will be distributed to low-income schools first. Phasing out older services will help continue this funding goal in later years, the order states.