Death to the desk phone: The trusty PBX system is fast becoming a relic

Mobile users, unified comm systems are changing the game; Port of L.A. offers one example

A police officer on a motorcycle is patrolling the Port of Los Angeles, a 43-square-mile area of coastline and the busiest harbor in the United States. Suddenly, he hears a loud explosion behind him. He reels around to see an airplane has crashed into the marina. In seconds, the officer is on the phone with the port’s command center.

“There’s been a plane crash in the marina!" he yells. "Heading to the site now to respond."

Without any context beyond that message, the operator at the command center might think that a single-engine Cessna has crashed into the marina.

Actually, the officer is looking at the wreckage of a 737 aircraft, with burning jet fuel rolling across the water.

Chasing the universal inbox

Unified communications is a slippery term, but it really boils down to one principle: get all your modes of communicating into one spot, wherever you are in the world. It has been a pipe dream for enterprise users for years and, until recently, has not had a feasible solution.

The social Web and explosion of mobile computing have changed the way IT departments think about communications channels. Now, instead of trying to consolidate all channels to an employee’s office, the desk phone, PC and mobile phone must work in conjunction without sacrificing capabilities across platforms.

The paradox for IT departments is that as infrastructure improves existing channels, more standards emerge to integrate. The cloud, smart phones, tablets and video make unified communications possible. However, a plethora of standards and the varying needs and wants of employees make implementing one true universal inbox a gargantuan challenge.


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Proper identification, even seconds into a disaster, could mean the difference between life and death, as it likely would in this hypothetical scenario, said Capt. Don Farrell, commander of the tactical planning and technology coordination division of the Port of Los Angeles Police Department.

“We have a very serious disconnect,” he said, describing the communications in the scenario. The problem facing the Port of Los Angeles, law enforcement agencies and military services everywhere is how to communicate rapidly to emergency responders with the most critical information during an unfolding crisis.

“So we are looking at ways of improving the granularity of our situational awareness from the command-post level to individual responders in the field and giving them the ability to both receive and to uplink situational awareness,” Farrell said.

That goal depends on making many technical and tactical improvements along the emergency response chain of command. But the most important factor might be upgrading the chain itself.

Doing so would mean unifying the systems that public safety and security workers use to access the bits and pieces of video, text, data and voice that fill in the situational mosaic. It would also mean taming an explosion of new Internet–based and mobile communications technologies now making their way into the public-sector marketplace.

PBX out to pasture

In the future, an officer responding to a crash and command center personnel organizing a response would be able to collaborate more seamlessly. But to get there, some traditional technology must give way, experts say. Near the top of the list is the conventional PBX system, the workhorse of office communications for the past 25 years.
 
Private branch exchange systems are the back end of an office phone system that routes calls. They are the reason you must dial a 9 to get an outside line or four numbers for an in-house extension. They put you on hold, play music while you wait and put you in conference calls.

But just as PBX systems replaced the switchboard operator, they are rapidly becoming a technology relic. In the enterprise, all they can really do is manage phone systems. Although PBX systems have performed that job admirably during their tenure, the workforce is changing. Simply put, the world is going mobile.

“The reason that this is coming to a head is that there are so many users that are going mobile-only,” said Jack Gold, founder and principal analyst at J. Gold Associates, a Massachusetts-based technology consulting firm.

“Look at people's home," Gold said. "U.S. government statistics show that 25 percent of the population only has a mobile device and no land line at home. So when that happens, you know businesses are not that far behind. So that is the first trend, the first issue.”

“Business users are mobile more often,” he added. “Even if they have a desk phone, they are not in the office. Having it there, it is both inconvenient for the user because they don't get to use it anyway and expensive for the organization because they are paying for something that no one is really using except for the voice mail.”

The next logical step in the evolution of the business network might be ripping the PBX system out of the wire closet.

Waiting in the wings is a collection of technologies called unified communications, systems that integrate telephony, IP, instant messaging, e-mail systems, data, social media, videoconferencing and call control through one infrastructure across the enterprise. The basic aim is unfettered user freedom and high-end digital services.

“We are starting to see a major push toward consolidated, unified communications where users want to say, 'I don't care what number you are calling me on, where you are leaving me a message, where you are sending me a text. Here is the device that I have in my hand. Figure out how to make it all come to this device so I can respond,' ” Gold said.

PBX retirement party

In the federal government, network managers see the handwriting on the wall. For its part, the General Services Administration is looking into replacing its PBX systems, with the aim of moving its voice traffic to the Internet, which will be a significant challenge.

“We have begun to retire some of them, but at one point, GSA had about 300 PBXs throughout our regions,” said Karl Krumbholz, GSA's director of the office of network services programs and integrated technology services.

For GSA, the move is guided closely by cost. “Some of them have already phased out their PBXs, and some have relatively new PBXs that still have great value,” Krumbholz said. “Some of those are fully amortized and allow us to provide services at very low cost. So there is still value in some of those PBXs that are out there.”

“On the other hand, there are some that are quite old, and it is difficult for us to get parts for some of them,” he said. “The industry is going to voice over IP, and eventually all of these PBXs are going to have to be retired. It is just a matter of time.”

GSA thought replacing PBX systems and transitioning to a VOIP network would be smooth but found the process was more cumbersome than anticipated. In some cases, ownership of older systems was an impediment to bringing in more unified systems. Within a year, GSA hopes to offer VOIP systems to federal agencies through its Networx contract.

Solutions to port

The problems of managing communication streams of a single office or agency might seem simple compared with the voice, data and video requirements of one of the busiest ports in the world. However, large and small enterprise managers often have a similar epiphany when it comes to realizing their systems have crossed the line of obsolescence.

For Farrell, that happened during training exercises with the LAPD in 2004. Farrell and a team of officers were in the back of a command vehicle reviewing maps mounted under clear Plexiglas. They were also using narrowband radios to communicate with other units.

This was fine, it seemed, until the group left the back of the command vehicle and did not have an effective way to communicate situational readiness.

“We realized that we were operating municipal government management in 2004 with Korean War technology,” he said. “We were using paper maps with Plexiglas covers on it, which was fine as long as we were standing around. We were also using our voice radio and, when they worked, back in 2004, using cell phones for communications.”

Something needed to change, he said. “Based on the lessons from that exercise, we started examining the communications matrix when you have multiple disciplines trying to come together to mitigate a problem. We realized that there had to be a better way to do it.”

In 2008, Farrell came to the port and began working with the team there to integrate mobile technologies. At the time, the port was building a state-of-the-art integrated command center to function as its fusion center.

Through a contract with Science Applications International Corp., the port also acquired Verint IP-based security cameras and video security services from Reality Mobile, which offers video security systems to law enforcement and the military. The company’s Screen Casting and Reality Vision pushes real-time video and data from a command center to people in the field.

“The Port of Los Angeles has [350] cameras,” said Brian Geoghegan, chief product officer at Reality Mobile. “We figured we could take their IP-based fixed cameras and push them out to the users in real time, too. So the old model of people at the command center viewing feeds and then getting on the radio and calling people in the field and saying, 'Hey, I am seeing X,' we can streamline that by saying, 'I am seeing X, and in 30 seconds, you are going to see X on your phone too.' ”

With the command center and updated technology, officers at the port's command center can seamlessly share data and video in real time among a variety of devices and formats via any type of IP-based network. Reality Mobile works with regular cellular networks, satellite communications, mesh and private networks, and Wi-Fi.

“What this allows us to do — and to my knowledge, we are the only agency in the world that is currently doing this — is that when our police officers begin to respond to an incident, whether they are in boats, motorcycles or patrol cars, we can push down real-time video of the event they are responding to as they are responding,” Farrell said.

“When our police officers are responding to a classic police scenario, they are able to actually see on the monitor of their mobile digital computers or their handheld devices that this is either five 16-year-olds horsing around at a mall or it is 75 bikers with chains and knives rioting in a parking lot,” he said.

That information, Farrell said, "gives them the ability to more safely respond to an incident. And once you have more situational awareness, the better your decision-making is in the field.”

Reader Comments

Wed, Mar 16, 2011 WCT DC

What happens when the 737 takes out your point of connection, or the provider of your UC. Will you have switched voice ckts to fall back to?? I too think PBXs are dinosaurs. Whats to ultimate answer?

Mon, Mar 14, 2011 John Schrader Alexandria, VA

Brilliant. I've been a "big iron" guy for years, but that time is past. The big multifunction switches and distributed PBXs are no longer relevant. While I believe there will always be a need for circuit switched networks, the reality is that we are consolidating and collapsing into a world where the data we need is available to us in a usable format wherever we may go. The US Army recognized this and put a CIO driven moratorium on new PBX/Circut Switch acquisitions. VOIP is all the rage...except it isn't integrated yet. UC is the answer, but the question may not yet be properly framed. jfs

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