NY county cashes in on unified communications

Immediate savings from network upgrade made the switch to VOIP possible

Broome County, situated in New York’s Southern Tier along the Pennsylvania state line, has fewer than 200,000 residents but serves as a hub for police departments in several surrounding counties to connect with state police.

“We have a pretty robust network infrastructure for a county our size,” said Kim McKinney, the county’s chief information officer and information technology director.

However, several years, ago the network was nearing the end of its life. “We had a Cisco infrastructure that was aging out,” McKinney said. Some elements were no longer maintained and it was due for an upgrade. The problem was funding.

“We had a capital plan to replace it,” but the economic downturn delayed the project, she said.

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The county seat is Binghamton, the home of Binghamton University and birthplace of IBM. “We’re pretty much an engineering county,” McKinney said. High tech, defense and aerospace companies in the area have included Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, Rockwell Collins, L-3 Communications, Endicott Interconnect, Universal Instruments and McIntosh Laboratories. However, a lot of them have moved, leaving the county financially strapped and forcing departments to cut budgets.

However, when Cisco Systems offered five-year financing with no interest for the network upgrade, Broome County was able to start the $1 million project last year. The new infrastructure now is helping to pay for itself by allowing the county to implement a unified IP communications platform that will save money while expanding functionality for an increasingly mobile workforce.

“Over the last several years, we tried to justify going to [voice over IP] and were not able to do it,” McKinney said. The county had an old Centrex contract that was relatively cheap, costing only about $17 a month per phone. With budgets being cut, “there was no way we were going to be able to go to VOIP without lowering our costs.”

With the new network in place, “they are going to show hard money savings in year one,” said Dan MacIvor, an account executive at CDW Government, the county’s systems integrator for the project. “That’s what put it over the top.”

With the network upgrade completed, the IT department expects to begin installing an integrated VOIP system this spring. It is using Version 7.3 of the Cisco Unified Communications Manager for managing VOIP calls and the company’s Unity Connection to integrate voice mail and e-mail. Because this platform integrates with Microsoft Active Directory, the availability and status of each person is visible, and users can contact others by voice phone, instant messaging, texting, chat or e-mail to phones, PCs or mobile devices.

“A lot of our users are on the go all of the time,” McKinney said. For example, public defenders spend much of their time out of the office with clients or in courtrooms. “All day long, they are taking messages constantly. This is a way for them to stay in touch while being mobile.”

The county began exploring an upgrade of its network switching and routing in 2007, MacIvor said.

“In the 2008 budget, they had some equipment that was clearly end of life,” he said. Replacing that equipment was a necessity, but the upgrade also promised to facilitate a VOIP system, although it was not immediately apparent how soon the county could make that switch. Then “Cisco offered an extremely attractive financing plan.”

After working with CDW-G for a year, the county received the equipment in fall 2009 and completed the network upgrade during the winter. At that point, it became apparent that a move to VOIP and unified messaging could offer immediate savings over the Centrex system.

Although saving money is the business justification for the conversion to unified IP, functionality is driving it from an IT point of view, McKinney said.

“The technology was becoming outdated,” she said. “Centrex was basically a dial tone. That’s all it was. There was not much flexibility to it. The telephone companies are moving away from that infrastructure, and we wanted to do the same.”

The value of unified communications was illustrated by a limited experiment with a similar service used by about 50 high-end workers in the IT department and a few county officials. It was hosted off-site by another service provider. “It was very limited,” McKinney said. “It didn’t play very well with our Outlook. But it was popular.”

Although money was the deciding factor in getting the go-ahead for unified messaging, user acceptance is essential to making it successful. “We knew we were going to have that from the small sample we had” in the experiment, McKinney said.

The county is implementing the system in two phases, with the first installation coming this spring at the county’s Justice Building, where about 170 people work. “Then we are going to let that run for a month or so before doing the next phase,” McKinney said. The next phase will be the county’s main office building, with another 450 workers. “We expect the savings to grow as we add the main building.”

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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