External Factors Drive Unified Communications

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Unified communications (UC) is a notoriously hard term to pin down, but however you view it there’s no doubt that demand for it across government is starting to develop. Actual deployment may still be light, but activities that will eventually require it are gathering pace so the future for UC in government is bright.

Teleworking, for example, is considered a first step along the road to more widespread use of UC. President Obama signed the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act early in December, requiring all agencies to establish policies for their employees to work outside the office.

It’s the final stamp of approval that will push government into a much wider use of teleworking to provide more flexibility and better working conditions for their employees, help cut agency costs, and to guarantee continued operations during emergencies such as February 2010’s  “Snowmageddon” paralysis of Washington, DC.

Office of Personnel Management (OPM) director John Berry said the long-term goal “is to have the vast majority of (the government) workforce telework on a regular basis.”

Other technology trends, such as the use of the cloud to provide applications and services and the bulldozer that is social media, also augur well for the increased uptake of UC. And the push by many agencies for better collaboration between their own people as well as between agencies and other entities could prove the biggest impact of all on the use of unified communications.

The numbers alone show the promise for UC. In its 2010 Unified Communications Tracking Poll, technology solutions provider CDW found that some 75 percent of government agencies were preparing either a business case or a strategic plan for using UC. Some 20 percent were in the process of deploying UC, and eight percent had already deployed it.

“From what we’re seeing now, wide scale deployment is finally starting to happen,” said Andy Dignan, CDW’s senior manager of unified communications. If just a portion of those who said they were going to deploy actually do “then my hope would be that the next CDW tracking poll will see the actual deployed figure at 15 to 20 percent for 2010/2011.”

It’s a much different market than five years ago, which Dignan described as “very difficult”. There just wasn’t a lot of education then about UC, and the reception companies got at agencies was mostly puzzled looks. Now, there’s a much better understanding about what UC can do to support an agency’s business and mission, both with C-level executives and in IT departments.

“We’ve been involved with some pretty significant request for proposals in the past six to twelve months,” he said.

Those could involve the use of the term unified communications, though more likely they would ask for Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) solutions, which agencies are more frequently using to replace their aging, and expensive, circuit-switched Time-Division Multiplexing (TDM) phone systems with communications that run over IP networks.

That’s an important point. VoIP itself is not UC, but given that unified communications is about delivering various kinds of communication services and applications digitally over an IP infrastructure, it’s an essential gateway technology for the eventual use of UC.

The U.S. government is the leader among all sectors when it comes to using VoIP. In early 2010, market researcher In-Stat reported that nearly half of all respondents to a government-wide survey reported VoIP being deployed. The Census Bureau, Social Security Administration, General Services Administration are prime examples of government agencies moving to widespread use of VoIP.

The biggest user is the military, which decided over a decade ago to move to an IP infrastructure to support a “net centric” approach to fighting war. VoIP is proliferating throughout the military and is a major component of what the Defense Department has labelled its Unified Capabilities, an expansive set of requirements that sets the VoIP-driven basis for future unified communications.

An early example of what that might entail is Defense Connect Online (DCO), a secure system that combines VoIP with web conferencing, video and instant messaging along with presence and awareness, two services by which users can tell in real time who is available and can be contacted. It’s used for collaboration and to improve situational awareness.

Perhaps a better way of looking at the government market for UC is to consider the kinds of things agencies want to do with communications, such as speed up their decision making, increase productivity by doing more with less people, react faster to citizen requests and so on, said Lawrence Byrd, director of UC architecture at Avaya Inc.

“People are not asking for UC, necessarily, they’re asking for certain kinds of capabilities, and then they expect things to work together and be easy to use in order to provide those capabilities,” he said. “In that sense then there is absolutely a demand for UC.”

Demand is also increasing because of the proliferation and accelerating diversity of the various ways of communicating. Only a few years ago it was just voice and email. Today, as well as those two, it’s also instant messaging, texting over cell networks, Twitter, Facebook and, more and more, through video.

It’s now relatively easy, using freely available services such as Skype, for someone in the US to videoconference with people in Europe or Asia. If people can do that in the comfort of their bedrooms, and connect in real-time through such things as Facebook, they’ll expect the same kinds of tools to be available to them at their place of work.

Some people think the conversation has even started to move beyond just the consideration of UC into such things as collaboration, which government overall is touting as a major tool that will be needed to drive many of the solutions to critical problems.

The need to more easily swap information and ideas between agencies and other organizations was highlighted following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Lack of interoperability between various communications networks prevented that, however, and a huge amount of energy and money has gone since into improving those communications.

“One of the areas we have constant discussion with CIOs about it being able to take existing day-to-day applications and be able to instantly launch a UC session from it,” said Steve Derr, vice president of sales and engineering for Avaya Government Solutions. “So, if you’re a missile warning operator and you detect a launch, it should be a very simple thing to click on an icon that says “initiate conference” and the system automatically pulls together a conference of all the right parties to analyze the launch and act on it in the appropriate way.”

Cybersecurity is probably the most critical issue government is currently dealing with. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano recently stressed that the effort to secure cyberspace had to be a team effort between Homeland Security, the DOD and other agencies and even private industry organizations.

“We’re hearing more and more from leaders in the DOD, civilian and intelligence agencies about the importance of collaboration, and unified communications becomes the platform that will enable that,” said David Hawkins, unified communications practice director with Iron Bow Technologies.

Collaboration isn’t a technology issue in itself, it’s a business process and behavior. But it requires technology that will support the pervasive, ubiquitous, anywhere, anyplace and secure communications that in turn will enable to kind of collaboration people now have in mind, Hawkins said. And only UC can deliver on that.

The first adopter stage for unified communications is already done, he feels. People now see its benefits, and it’s no longer debatable as to whether it’s a viable approach or not.

“I think we’re going to see mass adoption, and relatively soon,” he said. “We’re now moving to unified architectures, and users won’t accept any other model.”

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer for 1105 Government Information Group’s Content Solutions unit. This Snapshot report was commissioned by the Content Solutions unit, an independent editorial arm of 1105 Government Information Group. Specific topics are chosen in response to interest from the vendor community; however, sponsors are not guaranteed content contribution or review of content before publication. For more information about 1105 Government Information Group Content Solutions, please email us at GIGCustomMedia@1105govinfo.com