October 18, 2006

SIPBox and Asterisk lower phone costs for children's agency

Author: Tina Gasperson

The ECHO Joint Agreement agency serves exceptional children in the Chicago public school district. With offices in six separate locations, the agency was spending a lot of money on phone service, until it installed SIPBox's full service telephony solution, based on Digium's open source Asterisk voice over IP (VoIP) platform.

ECHO, which stands for Exceptional Children Have Opportunities, is a special education co-op that provides therapy and educational activities to students with mental and physical impairments. Instead of housing special needs students in separate facilities or making them travel to a remote location, special education teachers and therapists maintain satellite ECHO offices on the campuses of area schools, says director Larry Scaletta. "ECHO has six main sites at school buildings. Each had its own little Nortel [telephone] network," he says. "What we have been doing is making sure that all the sites are connected together," in order to cut costs associated with disparate service accounts.

ECHO issued a request for proposals last year to find a new phone system that would be easier on its budget. Scaletta quickly found that recent technological advances promised to bring big savings, and big changes, to ECHO. "It wasn't necessary for it to be [voice over IP], but that's what everybody came in with," Scaletta says. "The phone companies felt that we could save some money with that but still get a good product. SIPBox is the one that came back with the lowest bid."

SIPBox provided ECHO with consultation, implementation, network infrastructure, and custom development for a system that uses Asterisk Business Edition VoIP software and Digium PCI phone cards installed on a single Linux server in each location.

Scaletta says there have been few obstacles to getting ECHO's new phone system running smoothly. "The biggest challenge is that everybody wants to do things the exact same way they used to," Scaletta says. "If I had a phone on the wall, by God it better still be on the wall in the same place, as opposed to sitting next to a chair in the faculty lounge. It's changing the mindset."

Beyond the immediate benefits of lower out-of-pocket costs, Scaletta says one of the money-saving aspects of the new phone system is that ECHO's front office staff is free to do more than just answer and route calls all day, since extensions are available via direct dial and an automatic voice mail system. "[Callers] can go right to whomever they want," he says. "That's a training process. It's incumbent on us to make sure we get our numbers out there. That frees up the operator to do other things, so we can change the workload." Callers can still dial the main number, but Scaletta says, "if you know the extensions, we're trying to lighten the workload on the ladies."

SIPBox's custom development services have made it easy for other employees to help lighten that load. "The principal wanted to be able to answer the main line from her office," he says. "Before she had to get up. Now we programmed the system so she can hit star 8 and pick up the line from the phone at her desk. SIPBox has been more than happy to do 99.9% of everything I say."

Scaletta says that when your business is counting the cost of a move to VoIP, don't forget to factor in the condition of the existing infrastructure. "What you have to do is make sure everyone agrees beforehand on specifications, and that everything is set before the switchover occurs. Do your homework and make sure you know what you want [from a telephony system] before you even start."


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