Fixing E-Rate – SIP

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I was talking to my friend Joshua Williams (@JSW_EdTech) about our favorite discussion topic: E-Rate.  I’ve written about E-Rate’s slow death and how it needs to be modernized.  One of the things that Joshua mentioned to me is a recent speech from Commissioner Ajit Pai in front of the FCC.  The short, short version of this speech is that the esteemed commissioner doesn’t want to increase the pool of money paid from the Universal Service Fund (USF) into E-Rate.  Instead, he wants to do away with “wasteful” services like wireline telephones and web hosting.  Naturally, when I read this my reaction was a bit pointed.

Commissioner Pai has his heart in the right place.  His staff gave him some very good notes about his interviews with school officials.  But he’s missed the boat completely about the “waste” in the program and how to address it.  His idea of reforming the program won’t come close to fixing the problems inherent in the system.

Voices Carry

Let’s look at the phone portion for moment.  Commissioner Pai says that E-Rate spends $600 million per year on funding wireline telephone services.  That is a pretty big number.  He says that the money we sink into phone services should go to broadband connections instead.  Because the problems in schools aren’t decaying phone systems or lack of wireless or even old architecture.  It’s faster Internet.  Never mind that broadband circuits are part of the always-funded Priority One pool of money.  Or that getting the equipment required to turn up the circuit is part of Priority Two.  No, the way to fix the problem is to stop paying for phones.

Commissioner Pai obviously emails and texts the principals and receptionists at his children’s schools.  He must have instant messaging communications with them regularly. Who in their right mind would call a school?  Oh, right.  Think of all the reasons that you might want to call a school.  My child forget their sweater.  I’m picking them up early for a doctor’s appointment.  The list is virtually endless.  There are so many reasons to call a school.  Telling the school that you’re no longer paying for phone service is likely to get your yelled at.  Or run out of town on a rail.

What about newer phone technologies?  Services that might work better with those fast broadband connections that Commissioner Pai is suggesting are sorely needed?  What about SIP trunking?  It seems like a no-brainer to me.  Take some of the voice service money and earmark it for new broadband connections.  However, it can only be used for a faster broadband connection if the telephone service is converted to a SIP trunk.  That’s a brilliant idea that would redirect the funding where it’s needed.

Sure, it’s likely going to require an upgrade of phone gear to support SIP and VoIP in general.  Yes, some rural phone companies are going to be forced to upgrade their circuits to support SIP.  But given that the major telecom companies have already petitioned the FCC to do away with wireline copper services in favor of VoIP, it seems that the phone companies would be on board with this.  It fixes many of the problems while still preserving the need for voice communications to the schools.

This is a win for the E-Rate integrators that are being targeted by Commissioner Pai’s statement that it’s too difficult to fill out E-Rate paperwork.  Those same integrators will be needed to take legacy phone systems and drag them kicking and screaming into the modern era.  This kind of expertise is what E-Rate should be paying for.  It’s the kind of specialized knowledge that school IT departments shouldn’t need to have on staff.

Tom’s Take

I spent a large part of my career implementing voice systems for education.  Many times I wondered why we would hook up a state-of-the-art CallManager to a cluster of analog voice lines.  The answer was almost always about money.  SIP was expensive.  SIP required a faster circuit.  Analog was cheap.  It was available.  It was easy.

Now schools have to deal with the real possibility of losing funding for E-Rate voice service because one of the commissioners thinks that no one uses voice any more.  I say we should take the money he wants to save and reinvest it into modernizing phone systems for all E-Rate eligible schools.  Doing so would go a long way toward removing the increasing maintenance costs for legacy phone systems as well as retiring circuits that require constant attention.  That would increase the pool of available money in future funding years.  The answer isn’t to kill programs.  It’s to figure out why they cost so much and find ways to make them more efficient.  And if you don’t think that’s what’s needed Commissioner Pai, give me a call.  I still have a working phone.

SIP Trunking – Review

When I first got started working with Voice-over-IP (VoIP), I was excited about all the possibilities of making calls over the Internet and moving away from my old reliance on Ma Bell.  However, the reality of my continued dependence on the good old phone company is an ever-present reminder that sometimes technology needs to mature a little before I can make bigger leaps.  That’s why the idea behind SIP trunking has me excited.  It brings back a little bit of that hopeful magic from my early days of VoIP possibilities.  Thanks to Christina Hattingh, Darryl Sladden, and ATM Zakaria Swapan and the good folks over at Cisco Press, I got my feet wet with SIP Trunking:

This is the “pound cake” of Cisco Press books.  It’s only about 300 pages and a bit on the thin size, but it’s a very dense read.  Part 1 covers the differences between traditional Time-Division Multiplexing (TDM) trunking and SIP trunking.  There is discussion of the cost and benefit of moving to a hybrid model or even to a pure SIP environment.  This is a good part to focus on if you aren’t familiar with SIP trunking in general or you are trying to convince your decision makers to give it a try.

Part 2 is all about planning.  One hundred plus pages of modeling and design and checklists.  An engineer’s dream.  You are going to spend a lot of time in here dissecting the cutover strategies and the list of questions that you need to ask your provider before delving into the SIP-infested waters.  In fact, I would recommend this book for Chapter 9 alone, the checklist chapter.  It goes into great detail about all the questions you need to ask your provider, along with a description of each question and why the answer would be so important to you.

Part 3 is the deployment guide.  No Cisco Press book is complete without some code examples, and Chapter 10 has them in spades.  One thing I did like about their examples of AT&T and Verizon configuration is that they are appropriately annotated with notes to be sure you understand why a particular setting was configured.  I want to see more of this in the networking-focused Cisco Press books, not just the planning ones.  There are also case studies to help you make decisions and a chapter on the future of Unified Communications.  This one’s kind of dubious, though, as most of the time the predictions either end up looking hilariously obvious in hindsight or wide of the mark.  You can’t fault the authors for wanting to put a little bit of vision in at the end of this read, though.

Tom’s Take

If you want to learn a little more about SIP trunking or you are planning to put one in in the next 6-8 months, grab a copy of this book.  Have a cup of coffee before you jump into it, as the material could be a little dry if you aren’t focused on the task at hand.  Make sure to dog-ear the first page of Chapter 9, as you’ll find yourself coming back here more and more as you start implementing your SIP trunk.


This book was provided to me as a perk at Cisco Live for being a NetVet.  I chose this book from a list of the available titles and it was provided to me at no charge above the cost of the conference.  Cisco Press did not ask for nor did I promise any kind of consideration in the above review.  The thoughts and opinions expressed above represent my true and honest opinion of the material.