Census Bureau runs VOIP over upgraded, high-quality network

The bureau upgraded its network for the 2000 census, adding quality-of-service controls needed for voice traffic, says CIO Richard Swartz.

Rick Steele

On the eve of the 2000 census, the Census Bureau was looking for a replacement for its AT&T Merlin telephone system.

'The phones were 15 years old, and they didn't make them anymore,' said Richard W. Swartz, the bureau's CIO and associate director for IT.

The General Services Administration provided incoming telephone lines, and Census was paying $10 a month for each number. It cost about $150 to move a phone.

The typical decision at that time would have been to install a private branch exchange, but 'we wanted to position ourselves for the future,' Swartz said. 'We started looking at voice over IP. We liked the idea of a converged network.'

And the winner is ...

VOIP won out, and in late 2000, Census started installing 5,000 IP phones from Cisco Systems Inc. at the bureau's Washington headquarters. Today, Census has about 6,500 phones, with three national call centers and nine of 12 regional offices equipped with VOIP.

Census was one of the earliest large government VOIP deployments, and the decision took some courage, Swartz said.

'Back then, a lot of people were questioning that decision,' he said. 'We probably would have wanted to wait a little longer,' but the antiquated legacy system would not allow it.

Swartz is happy with the results. Census is using the flexibility of IP telephony for videoconferencing and call center routing, and to ship audio files to radio stations for public service announcements. Moving a worker is as simple as unplugging a phone at one desk and plugging it in at another.

'Our system now is more reliable than our other system was,' Swartz said.

In fact, reliability was the biggest concern during the move to VOIP, he said. 'Computers go down, and you can tolerate that. But what do you do if your phones go down? Everybody relies on them to do their jobs.'

The solution was to design fault tolerance into the network, with redundant network connections and servers, round-the-clock network monitoring and vendor technicians on call. The bureau was fortunate that it had just upgraded its network for the 2000 census, adding the quality-of-service controls needed for voice traffic.

'We had re-architected the network,' Swartz said. 'We piggybacked the VOIP on top of that.'

There were also some unexpected costs and requirements associated with the new technology.

'We didn't have a lab,' to test changes on network devices before they were deployed, Swartz said. 'Once we went to VOIP, we saw we had to have a lab. And that was pretty expensive.'

But the bureau now has a rigorous change control process that benefits both voice and data systems.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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