Few large government agencies have just a single office site; many have facilities across the country; several have locations around the globe.
With 1,600 locations, the Social Security Administration is a microcosm of a typical federal agency. Its facilities range from large sites that house thousands of employees in major cities to five-person mini-offices attached to rural post offices 100 miles or more from the nearest SSA technology support center. Onsite telecommunications support — moving someone’s phone from one room to another, troubleshooting a bad line or adding new features — might require miles of travel by support personnel.
The SSA tech team ultimately decided to go with a Voice over Internet Protocol convergence that would span the agency. Taking such an approach offers many benefits, including the ability for one shop to administer telecom services across a large, far-flung organization. But a massive VoIP cutover is not without its challenges. An agency must address three prime issues: dealing with packet latency and ensuring uptime, safeguarding 911 and 411 services agencywide, and readying users to take advantage of the new services.
Social Security understood well the management challenges of its pre-VoIP environment. There was simply no way to centralize management and consolidate the offices’ functions, says Philip Becker, associate commissioner of SSA for telecommunications and systems operations.
“Just the ability to centrally manage calls — for example, to redirect calls from one target site to another — would allow us to greatly improve service and performance,” he says.
With such administration, if an office experienced a spike in call volume, SSA would be able to redirect calls to a second target site. Or in the case of an emergency, such as a disaster that shuts down an office, a converged communications approach would let it maintain communications services through redirects that would be transparent to callers.
Becker says SSA also wants to connect employees to their phone service rather than to physical phones. Just as users can log on to any computer in the network and gain access to all authorized applications, SSA wants users to be able to move to any telephone handset and maintain all their functions, including their phone numbers and voice mail.
Additionally, with its telephone systems at or beyond their expected life and badly in need of an upgrade (much of the SSA telecom equipment is about 15 years old), the agency found itself in an ideal position to move to a new technology.
“It was a perfect opportunity for them to use the budget they were going to have to spend anyway on new equipment to buy technology that would solve many of their business challenges related to decentralized telecommunications systems,” says Michael Paige, chief operating officer for Nortel Government Solutions, whose systems make up the new VoIP network now being implemented.
Catharine Trebnick, principal and communications specialist with analyst group America’s Growth Capital, says that many government agencies are finding that “there’s life beyond their legacy PBXes.” She explains that a convergence of necessity and technology is encouraging many agencies — and private organizations as well — to implement VoIP.
First, she says, the communications equipment at many organizations is nearing the end of its lifecycle, similar to SSA. “They have to replace it with something. And that decision naturally leads them to consider VoIP.”
Second, organizations have recently beefed up their IP infrastructure, and they want to get a faster return on that investment by adding additional functions.
Third, VoIP technology has matured to the point where it rivals traditional phone service in quality and availability, Trebnick says.
Finally, she says, “agencies are desperately looking for ways to drive costs down, and VoIP can help them do that.”
Although SSA is undertaking one of the government’s most extensive VoIP implementations, other federal organizations, such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Navy, have deployed it broadly, too. In addition, many state and local governments — including Charlotte County, Fla., and the city of Baton Rouge, La. — recently installed VoIP systems.
SSA’s Telephone Systems Replacement Project will cost around $300 million over 10 years. Ultimately, it will provide VoIP service to more than 55,000 field-office agents.
Besides providing centralized management, it will offer callers unified messaging and interactive voice-response capabilities, allowing SSA to do away with a confusing hodgepodge of systems and features that have been installed over time. It will also help SSA monitor service, consolidate network service charges, lower administration costs and consider future expansion of functions.
The implementation phase began this spring. Within a year, SSA expects to replace telephone systems in 205 of its 1,600 field offices. After the initial rollout, SSA will ramp up implementations to more than 500 offices a year. “We hope to get this completed by the time the baby-boom generation increases their calls for our services,” says Becker.
Although the main project has just begun, SSA already has accumulated a good deal of experience converging networks: It spent the past three years running pilot projects at 43 sites. During this test phase, it overcame a number of obstacles related to both technology and training. A look at the SSA project will help other agencies moving to converged voice and data services understand and overcome potential pitfalls, and take advantage of the possible benefits.
Avoiding Voice Latency and Assuring Uptime
One of the first and probably most important lessons learned was that voice transmission is much less forgiving than data service. Dropped packets during e-mail transmissions can be reconstructed. In voice, a packet loss that would be considered insignificant in data traffic can cause latency and jitter. When such problems are persistent, many employees find the system virtually unusable, Becker says.
Telephone users expect a high level of availability. “When we pick up a handset, we all expect to hear a dial tone,” says Paige. He estimates a typical telephone user has a working phone for all but five minutes each year. This level of service — called “five nines” uptime — means the service is available 99.999 percent of the time. In contrast, data networks are considered strong if they provide “two nines,” or 99 percent uptime (or to state it another way, 87 hours a year of downtime). Although that may be OK for data networks, people expect better reliability in their phone service.
Paige says SSA’s goal was to beef up its network to the extent that it could provide between three and four nines, or less than eight hours of downtime a year.
Here’s how SAA will accomplish that:
- The agency will build a highly available network with automatic fail-over and the ability to take down sections of the network for backup and maintenance without disrupting service.
- To prevent large offices from overloading the system and to make capacity planning less problematic, Becker says the agency will provide standalone VoIP systems in 14 of its largest offices. Those systems will be used for intra-premises, local and long-distance calling, and for services across the SSA enterprise.
- The combined data and voice network provides quality of service (QoS) tools to automatically dedicate bandwidth to voice traffic and to prioritize voice over data traffic.
- The Nortel hardware can diagnose in real time the location of any problems, such as traffic bottlenecks from usage spikes or equipment failures. These diagnostics are crucial, says Paige, because the flow of VoIP data across the SSA network is flexible.
“With the system SSA is deploying, you might make a VoIP call that is routed through 11 servers. Five minutes later you call the same person back and the call routes through five servers, all different from those used in the first call,” Paige says. “In a system like that, diagnostics can be very problematic if you don’t have a technology in place to troubleshoot them.”
Providing 911 and 411 Services
Another challenge for SSA was figuring out how to provide 411 and 911 service to its remote offices.
Normally with VoIP, the system handles those calls itself. But SSA would have a difficult time routing calls to local emergency services, given its widely scattered offices, and providing 411 service would have been unreasonably burdensome.
“We decided the least expensive and easiest option was to handle those services locally, rather than bringing all those calls to our central location,” Becker says.
Accordingly, each site will have a few local lines through which calls to 411 or 911 will automatically flow.
Becker says a successful VoIP deployment hinges on being sure the users are ready for the new service. On many levels, VoIP mirrors the functions of standard telephone service: You pick up the handset, hear a dial tone and make the call. Because of that sense of familiarity, he says, there’s a temptation to give training short shrift.
Don’t do that, Becker advises. “We can put a lot of functionality in a VoIP system. If we want people to take advantage of those functions and any future applications that we expect to provide, employees have to be comfortable with the system.”
In the end, SSA opted to bring in professional trainers rather than depend on the deployment team or its own technical staff.
Ready for the Wave
Given the extensive testing and planning, Becker expects the project to proceed efficiently. A chief reason is that SSA created a project team whose members include systems professionals as well as internal customers.
“Our people will be managing the project and using performance measurement tools to keep track of costs and time,” Becker says. “We may hit a few stumbling blocks, but in general we expect this to move along on time and on budget.”