FRAMINGHAM (05/01/2000) - All the talk about convergence - merging voice, data and video streams in a common access pipe with common equipment - makes it seem like something new and wonderful. In reality, it's not either. Schools have been converging their systems for years in answer to some very specific needs and for some very specific savings in time and money.
It used to be that telephones were located only in the principal's office, the nurse's clinic and the teacher's workroom. Telephones in the classrooms were unheard of. Today, there are phones in classrooms for three reasons - they're useful, improve safety and can be used to control things.
In modern schools, the phone switch is integrated with a paging and intercom system. This makes sense because most phone systems already have that capability. If you already have speakers in the school's ceilings and corridors, why not use them as bells, too? Another needed function is thus converged into the system.
Modern classrooms need computers, which are hooked to networks that are hooked to the Internet. Because we're putting phone jacks everywhere, let's put network cable in the same places and install it all at once. We'll put switches or hubs in the same cabinet that the phone system occupies.
We need some way of distributing video into the classrooms, too. A multichannel video distribution system will be just the ticket, with televisions in each room hooked to common sources. We'll need to control those sources, so let's hook the video system into the phones and let teachers order what they need from the keypad. What about clocks? Well, we already have TVs, so let's just create a "clock channel" on the video system, with constant time display whenever anyone selects that channel. While we're at it, let's put an "announcement channel" on there, too.
What do you end up with? An integrated, converged system created to solve a specific problem set, and you save money. These systems have been available for at least five years, and systems with slightly lesser capabilities have been available for 10 years. Contrast this system with what the major telephone company's are preparing to offer in converged systems and it will seem like night and day.
What we need to realize is that the "new convergence" isn't primarily intended for our benefit, but rather for the telco's. By bundling all the services you need into a single-delivery method, you've locked yourself into that vendor. If someone else offers better or less expensive data service, you can't pull your data out of the pipe. Converged-delivery methods also save the vendor a lot of money, significantly reducing the number and types of wire they have to bring you, along with the associated central office equipment and maintenance requirements.
What do we get? Lower prices (initially) and all of our eggs in one basket, even if it is a fully redundant, battery-backed-up basket. But where is the true benefit here, and which of my problems is it intended to solve? I certainly can't tell.
Shapiro is district technology coordinator for Kingsport City Schools in Tennessee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.