Canada's National Ballet School has chosen IP communications technology for its new building complex in downtown Toronto, including voice over Wi-Fi phones.

The school has been using three wireless IP phones over its new Wi-Fi network to allow staff to move freely into areas of the buildings where cellular wireless does not work, said Larry Beevers, a former professional ballet dancer who is now head of property and operations for the renowned dance school.

"We built a new building and didn't want to lose anybody in it," he said in an interview last week. "We have three basement floors and 11 upper floors with 12 dance studios. There are maintenance shops and electrical rooms and chiller rooms where you can't use a cell phone."

Since early this year, the wireless voice system has been working well over the Wi-Fi network, although not inside elevators, Beevers said. He might install a wireless access point inside the elevator shafts to see if that improves the connection, he said.

One benefit of the IP-based technology is that fixed IP phones can be used to call for help in an emergency, with the call routed to a staffer carrying one of the wireless phones, he said. Other IP-based innovations include a laser data link between buildings, flat-screen panel displays in school hallways that flash voice mail alerts to students, and a voice switch that is a hybrid between IP and traditional circuit-switched voice technology, Beevers said.

Part of the motivation to try the new technology is the school's international reputation for excellence, he said. "We wanted all our technology, from phones to computers to HVAC, to be top-notch. People look to us for how we do things on stage, so we felt the same about the buildings, with visitors coming here from around the world. We wanted them to have a good feeling," Beevers said.

Beevers joined the school after retiring as a dancer years ago and working as a production manager for professional ballet companies that traveled the globe.

"If you can manage to put 175 people in a ballet in Tokyo on short notice, you learn some things about taking care of IT systems," he said.

Nortel couldn't match NEC's relationship
Most of the new IP-based technology is provided by NEC Unified Solutions, a Canadian affiliate of Japanese giant NEC, which provided the hardware for DoCoMo's voice on Wi-Fi service, whose use in the biggest voice on Wi-Fi deal so far has been seen as an endorsement for the technology .

The school and NEC entered a five-year agreement last year as part of a joint government and private initiative to develop technologically advanced facilities for training dancers, NEC officials and Beevers said. The technology will support the entire school, which has 270 staffers, 175 full-time ballet students from ages 11 to 20, and 650 part-time students ages 6 to 12, Beevers said. About one-fourth of the students are from abroad.

The voice-over-Wi-Fi phones are NEC's Dterm PSIII model, Beevers said.

He would not disclose his costs for the project but said the terms of the agreement include his willingness to demonstrate the technology to potential NEC customers. He said the project is "very large ... but we expect to lower costs."

Areas of savings include replacing long-distance toll-call charges with free VOIP calls. Teachers will also travel abroad using laptops equipped with soft phones for VOIP. Also, a new laser data connection that runs between the new building complex and an older building 1,000 feet away will save the school up to US$600 monthly over a fiber-optic connection, he said.

The school chose NEC over Canadian native Nortel Networks (despite Nortel's expertise on, and its claims to have made big savings from, voice on Wi-Fi) primarily because of the relationship that was established, Beevers said.

"It's not always about choosing the biggest vendor, but also how you are treated and how the vendor responds, and if you get things done that you want done," he said. "I'm going to be able to do a lot more with NEC than I would have with Nortel."

One of the biggest advantages of VOIP calling is that Beevers can avoid arranging new phone service with Bell Canada, he added. He said he has continually had billing problems with the company.

Part of why NEC has been able to win contracts such as the ballet school is that NEC offers a "total solution" with a range of products and services, said Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at Yankee Group. For communications technology, Cisco and Avaya are battling for first place, while Nortel is third and NEC is part of a group of companies ranking fourth and below that are fiercely competitive, Kerravala said.

Peter Judge contributed to this report.