Another View: Voice over IP overcomes its doubters

Jim Kane

Government agencies today face a daunting set of mandates'cut costs, but provide more services; improve responsiveness, but tighten security. In an effort to meet these requirements, many are weighing the merits of voice over IP.

VOIP has helped transform business communications in the commercial sector. Yet even as its adoption grows in government, some IT executives still harbor doubts. These doubts frequently reflect apprehension about the risks of implementing a new system, uncertainty about costs and scale, and a lack of awareness of VOIP's true capabilities.

Successful VOIP implementations follow the same best practices in any industry. They depend on a thorough understanding of user requirements and integrating VOIP solutions with an agency's overall architecture. The benefits of VOIP frequently become apparent during the requirements phase when users realize the richness of IP-based networks to fulfill users' voice, video and data requirements that frequently are dispersed among disparate networks.

There are also the economics of VOIP. Some think it's simply too expensive and requires an all-or-nothing implementation. In reality, most agencies start with a pilot program using a site with an end-of-lease or capacity-constrained TDM-based private branch exchange. This is how the state of Arizona approached the legislative mandate to replace aging telecommunications infrastructures with modern, IP-based networks [GCN, Aug. 29, Page 64]. The Arizona Department of Commerce became the pilot department because it needed to change locations and replace its 10-year-old PBX. The total outlay was around $250,000 for a new converged IP network, but the agency saved $50,000 a year in handset rentals and charges for premium phone services, plus another $80,000 a year in PBX administration costs.

With such compelling economics, more agencies are tapping into VOIP to manage increasingly tight budgets. However, to their surprise, they're also inheriting the ability to provide more services and improved responsiveness. The town of Herndon, Va., for example, recently replaced its aging phone systems with a converged network that will save 30 percent on phone costs alone. Beyond that, Herndon now has the ability to distribute Amber Alerts more widely than was possible using police station fax machines. Using a new Extensible Markup Language software program on IP phones, the town can transmit color pictures of children and possible suspects to all municipal workers, not just police.

But implementation and economic issues pale in comparison to other benefits inherent in IP-based networks. Continuity of operations in cases of emergency, such as natural disasters or terrorist incidents, has become a significant priority for government agencies at every level, especially in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And agencies are wondering if they can rely on VOIP in such times of need. Reliability of the switch is important, but since 9/11, overall survivability of communications has become paramount. Because of its Arpanet origin and integration into the Defense Data Network (designed to maintain command and control after major disruption of communication networks), the inherent attribute of a packet-based network is resilience. If packets are lost, the message is automatically resent, and if the most direct route is not available, IP routers direct traffic via alternative routes. With traditional TDM-based PBXs, if the switch goes down, all the active calls are terminated. With many VOIP solutions, calls in progress continue uninterrupted even if something happens to the switch.

The proliferation of government deployments is testament to the viability and broad applicability of VOIP. The secret to success still boils down to clearly identifying your agency's specific needs and architecting a VOIP implementation that meets those needs. If you follow that principle, agencies can move forward with confidence that they are building a foundation for meeting today's mandates and those of the future.

Jim Kane is president and CEO of the Systems and Software Consortium Inc. of Herndon, Va.

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