Interior edges closer to voice over IP

The Education Department has recently been using voice-over IP to fend off cyberattacks from Korea.

Robert Leach, Education's director of information technology operations and maintenance services, said, 'Because we have federal student aid, we have anywhere from moderate to severe penetration. On 4/29, there was an attack from Korea on to our network. Approximately, 30-some people got on to the VoIP bridge.'

When the federal student aid office adopted VoIP two years ago, officials simply wanted something that could smoothly hand-off incoming customer service calls within federal student aid. Now, VoIP is providing operational cost-savings, emergency preparedness and superior voice quality across the Education Department and, more slowly, other civilian federal agencies.

VoIP experts say VoIP technology is now practical for civilian federal agencies on a piecemeal basis, after cost-benefit analyses are performed.

Today, more than a quarter of the Education workforce uses Cisco VoIP systems, including headquarters at Union Center Plaza, Kansas City, Dallas and Atlanta. Over the next three months, the agency will expand services to New York and Boston. Every time the agency remodels or builds a facility, it deploys VoIP. Within a year and a half, 90 percent of Education will be on the VoIP network.

'Anytime that we have an external threat, a cyberthreat, we have pre-established VoIP bridges that everybody knows to call into as we're dealing with those threats,' Leach said. In February, agency officials tested an automatic phone tree with all VoIP handsets, as part of its continuity of operations plan (COOP), to remain functioning in the event of a serious natural disaster or terrorist attack. With VoIP, officials can cut phones at headquarters and migrate the same services to a safer place.

Leach and colleagues particularly enjoy the ability to migrate phone numbers, instantaneously, when they are traveling to satellite offices. 'When I go to Atlanta, all of my normal capabilities automatically transfer over there and are available to me," he said

Future plans call for a virtual COOP, where employees would use VoIP and video-IP, in their homes, recreating the office in an emergency situation. 'In a teleworking scenario, you want someone's phone ringing where they're going to be doing the work for the day,' Leach said.

But some observers say that much of the talk about VoIP within federal agencies -- is just that -- talk.

Jim Dolezal, a lead consultant at Suss Consulting and the former chief for telecommunications services at the Interior Department, said, 'Everyone is positioning themselves for VoIP, but they're not moving forward yet. . .Education is really at the lead.' He added that further adoption will depend on the future of Networx, the far-reaching telecommunications acquisition that General Services Administration officials are developing.

Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting, said, 'Most agencies have a VoIP migration on the table. Within the next three years, we'll see a large number of agencies moving into the VoIP environment.' He warned that the government should transition incrementally, program by program, ensuring high reliability infrastructures are in place before deployment.

Other analysts say quality of service has changed since just last year and the market is ripe for agencies to finally implement their plans.

'Now, it's beyond the stage of risk. It's in the stage of being a well accepted practice. Before you could always have someone argue against it and say it's not primetime ready. We don't hear any conservative arguments anymore,' said Frank Dzubeck, president and chief executive officer of Communications Network Architects.

For the time being, observers see isolated VoIP pilots popping up nationwide, within the General Services Administration, Forest Service and the Interior Department.

The Interior Department is moving ahead aggressively, within the Washington, DC area, on a hybrid voice-over IP telephone system, agency officials said yesterday. This weekend, technicians will finish connecting VoIP-enabled systems in the Interior's 3000-employee main campus building. Officials will move to the south campus building in June and the Bureau of Land Management in July.

'We're probably saving 30 to 35 percent of what it was costing us to provide voice services to our customer base,' said Matthew Stewart, chief of technology at Interior's National Business Center, adding that the new system will eventually eliminate long-distance charges, for example, to the NBC office in Denver, Colorado.

A $4.7 million ten-year lifecycle period contract, awarded to Fortran ' Compel, covers equipment, installation and maintenance for headquarters and offices in the outlying metropolitan area. The contract calls for a hybrid integrated digital voice communication system that runs digital and limited VoIP, to service 12,500 employees. Stewart says he will migrate to full VoIP, at headquarters, within the year. The business case will dictate rollout, state-by-state, office-by-office.

'It might not make sense to deploy it to outlying areas, like the Cadastral Survey in Minnesota with two people,' Stewart said.

Interior, no stranger to Internet disconnects, intentionally chose a system that will not rely on the Internet or access the Internet. Last month, agency officials shut down BLM's Web site after Interior's inspector general issued a report warning that the agency's information technology systems are vulnerable to cyberthreats. The shutdown was the latest in a long-running dispute over the security of Indian trust fund information.

All phones will operate on a separate VLAN with no remote access. When full VoIP arrives, the voice and data LANs will be separated by firewalls and real walls.

Security will be strict, even in the local environment. 'Remote maintenance is not allowed on the voice system,' said Mikki Smith, Stewart's former security officer and now a department-level cybersecurity officer. 'As far as locally hacking, they would have to defeat all the physical security in place.'

The overhaul will entirely scrap the previous infrastructure and the old phones, some of which were 15 years old. It includes much-need voicemail upgrade, with caller ID, more mailbox space and text-messaging. Employees will also now have indicators on their phones to alert them of new messages, Stewart said, adding, that before, 'if you didn't exit the system properly, you didn't get voice mail for the rest of the day.'

The Social Security Administration also has sweeping intentions for VoIP. Twenty of SSA's more than 1,300 offices nationwide now have voice over IP systems and more will soon, officials said.

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