SSA switches services to FTS 2001

SSA switches services to FTS 2001

Migration of voice and data from AT&T to WorldCom is nearly complete

By William Jackson

GCN Staff

The Social Security Administration has cut over its national toll-free customer service system from AT&T Corp. to WorldCom Inc., completing the transition of almost all voice services to the FTS 2001 contract.

'We took a little longer to make our selection on 2001,' said Robert Meekins, chief of SSA's FTS Management Branch. 'There were a lot of people who doubted our ability to get it done on time.'

SSA on May 20 switched the last of its 23 call centers to the WorldCom network. The agency already had moved long-distance service for 1,600 field offices and its Baltimore headquarters, changed over its private branch exchanges and telephone calling cards, moved 150 specialized toll-free lines and replaced a dedicated data backbone with a WorldCom asynchronous transfer mode network.

Final pieces

'We have a very large data network of dedicated private lines' feeding into the backbone from field offices, Meekins said. 'We have not cut that over yet because, instead of a like-for-like switch, we want to transition to a frame relay network.'

That work will begin this month, he said.

SSA is now ahead of the curve in moving to the new long-haul communications contract. According to the General Services Administration, 48 percent of 175 agencies had completed their transitions as of June 2. That includes 47 percent of switched voice service, 42 percent of switched data service and 54 percent of dedicated circuits.

GSA's Federal Technology Service awarded FTS 2001 contracts to Sprint Corp. and WorldCom, formerly known as MCI WorldCom, 18 months ago. Bridge contracts from FTS 2000 vendors Sprint and AT&T Corp. expire in December.

FTS commissioner Sandra Bates originally hoped to have transitions from the old contracts completed by this month, but she has moved the date to September.

'The key was planning on the front end,' Meekins said of SSA's transition. 'I would suggest that agencies carefully plan for each task that needs to be done and assign ownership for those tasks.'

SSA's toll-free customer service network handles 35 million minutes of calls a month from 7.5 million callers and has 286 T1 lines. Callers enter an interactive voice response system, which passes on about 70 percent of the calls to a human agent at one of the call centers.

The other callers generally get the information they seek from the automated system, which incorporates 4,000 voice recordings.

'They are one of our top five toll-free customers,' said Susan Zeleniak, head of civilian agencies for WorldCom. 'We had to upgrade and add capacity to our network. That's something we haven't had to do for anyone else.'

Besides more call processing capacity, the company added eight call routing nodes to the network, using Intelligent Call Manager routers from Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif.

WorldCom and SSA switched services to the new network in five phases over a six-week period.

'We chose a strategy of phased cutovers because we didn't want the risks of a flash cutover,' Meekins said. 'For the six weeks we had to operate dual networks,' but when problems arose 'we were able to address them on a smaller scale.'

A few bugs

Problems consisted mostly of coding errors and some incompatibility with terminating equipment, which required software changes. Service was never disrupted, he said.

Besides routing, the new system does reporting and can update SSA's database of field offices. But the new system's overall functionality is about the same as before, Meekins said.

'We've worked hard, but we haven't really taken the agency forward,' he said.

Now that the transition is wrapping up, the focus will shift to giving callers new options in the automated system and letting them make telephone contact over the Internet through a Web interface.

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