Arizona hears the call of IP telephony

State agencies realized cost savings by switching to IP telephony. But the real advantage has been productivity gains, such as phone access to Outlook address books, department directories and group calendars.

For Arizona's 114 state agencies, moving from antiquated phone systems to a converged voice over IP network wasn't merely a good idea, it was the law.

In 2003, the Arizona State Legislature approved a bill mandating that state agencies replace their aging telecommunications infrastructure with modern IP-based networks. So far, nine state agencies, employing some 5,000 users, have made the switch to IP telephony. Included in that number are some of the state's biggest organizations, among them the departments of Revenue, Education, Commerce and Corrections.

Their primary motivation? To save taxpayer money, of course. But along the way, the state discovered that a converged network not only increases efficiency and boosts security, it helps to create a government more responsive to the needs of its constituents.

At Arizona's Department of Commerce, the move toward a converged network began back in April 2003. Because the department needed to change locations and replace its 10-year-old PBX system, it was deemed a good candidate for a pilot rollout of VOIP, said IT manager Eric Mayer.

The department chose Ca- lence Inc., a systems integrator headquartered in Tempe, to put together the hardware.

The department installed a Cisco 3640 router for data and a 2650XM gateway for voice, along with Cisco switches, VPN concentrators, intrusion detection systems and firewalls. Each of the department's 120 em- ployees received an LCD-based 7940G handset and a Cisco Unity voice mailbox.

The total outlay was around $250,000, but Mayer said they quickly recouped the costs. The new network has saved $50,000 a year in handset rentals and charges for premium phone services, plus another $80,000 annually in salaries. Their old Nortel PBX required a dedicated administrator, said Mayer. 'He's got another job now.'

But it has been the productivity gains that have really impressed Arizona's Commerce Department. And those, in turn, have enabled the department to serve the public better. For example, Mayer's staff developed a custom XML application that allows Commerce staffers to access their Outlook address books, department directories and group calendars from their phones.

'We used to get a lot of calls from people who'd say, 'You had someone up here last week talking about improving our local infrastructure,' but they wouldn't remember who at Commerce they spoke to,' he said. 'We'd have to go to our intranet and look up who'd been where. Now that information is on the phone. The girl at the front desk can track down the right person and transfer the call.'

Streamlining deployment

Setting up a new phone or moving an existing line in a traditional PBX system can be costly and time consuming, said Steve West, IT Manager for Arizona's State Legislature. In politics, where the staff can turn over every two years, such costs add up. With IP-based phones, you can plug a phone anywhere into the network, and the user's number, address book and voice mail are instantly available.

'Our PBX vendor used to charge us every time someone moved offices or was added to or taken off the system,' he said. 'After the last election cycle, we avoided all of those costs.'

Going digital provided other benefits. Although the Legislature only installed 550 VOIP phones, it secured a block of 3,000 numbers at no extra cost; that way, staffers could give private numbers to friends and family, reserving others for public access.

And, West added, dropping its old PBX system made the state capitol much more secure. In the past, when the fire or police departments responded to a 911 call, they'd have no way to pinpoint the office from which the call was made. Cisco's e911 emergency responder system automatically identifies the extension, room number and floor, and then notifies capitol security personnel via cell phone or pager.

For other agencies, the move to IP telephony has produced some unexpected side benefits. With facilities based in remote areas of the state, Arizona's Department of Corrections consumes much of those areas' sparse bandwidth. As Corrections combines its voice, data and video surveillance systems, it's able to release some of those high-speed leased lines to the general public.

At the same time, the state has managed to avoid some of VOIP's better-known weaknesses. For example, the computer and phone networks are redundant and maintained on different servers; so even if the data network goes down, the phones still work. By relying almost entirely on one vendor for the hardware, the state minimized potential compatibility hassles, ensuring that all agencies remain on speaking terms (at least, technologically). A single-vendor solution also greatly simplifies support and administration issues, said Doug Fink, a vice president for Calence who specializes in voice products.

Infrastructure concerns

The biggest difficulty was how to replace the state's ancient infrastructure while keeping the old system working long enough so people could still do their jobs, said Fink.

'We try never to take dial tone out of play during production hours,' he said. 'When we worked with the Department of Commerce and the Legislature, we did a lot of work after hours and on weekends to make the transition seamless.'

Though the job is hardly done'the state ultimately plans to install up to 40,000 IP-based phones'Fink said he's already been contacted by other state governments looking to emulate Arizona's success. 'I think it will change the way all states look at cost savings inside government,' he said.

Chris Cummisky, Arizona CIO and director of the Government Information Technology Agency, which is overseeing the state's network convergence project, agreed. He believes a slow and steady rollout like Arizona's is the right way to go.

'Other states have tried to do this huge forklift upgrade in one sitting and found out it was too much to handle,' Cummisky said. 'We've tried to do it in a more methodical fashion. We're really just at the starting blocks, but we're encouraged by the way it's been unfolding.'

Dan Tynan is author of Computer Privacy Annoyances (O'Reilly Media, 2005).

Reader Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above