Four years ago, the Commerce
Department was gradually
sinking under the weight of
unwieldy computer networks
and outdated phone equipment.
Like many other government
agencies, it had accumulated numerous
disparate systems over the years, and trying
to keep costs down and service levels up
was becoming more challenging by the day.
"We had phones that were so old they
weren't modular, and we couldn't use
features like Caller ID, call waiting,
conference calling or a message-waiting
indicator," says Karen Hogan, deputy CIO
Upgrading the private branch exchange
(PBX) system would have left the agency
with a big bill for a system that still lacked
the advanced functionality it needed.
Instead, the agency opted to consolidate
voice, video and data into a single
infrastructure running on an Internet
Protocol (IP)-based network.
Today, Commerce has more than 9,000
employees using IP-based telephony in
multiple departments and offices. "It was
the only way to make network management
practical and affordable," Hogan says.
In a world where technology is quickly
going digital, communications is no
exception. IP-based telephony, video and
contact centers are helping federal agencies
drastically cut costs and manage voice and
data in ways that weren't possible only a
few years ago. IP-based technologies let
organizations consolidate and converge
voice and data networks into a single,
streamlined operation, while also gaining
"The idea of converging electronic
communications channels onto a single
platform is an attractive concept," says
Aaron Vance, a senior analyst at Synergy
Research Group (SRG), a Phoenix-based
market research firm. "It creates new
possibilities and new opportunities."
Convergence also helps streamline
communications for users: Employees can
receive voice mail, e-mail and faxes in a
single unified inbox, and they can plug
their phones into any network outlet and
automatically have calls routed to them.
IP-based telephony sends digitized
packets of voice data across a network.
Sometimes referred to as Voice over IP
(VoIP), it can encompass two distinct but
similar capabilities: a private network that
routes calls over a closed environment
such as a local area network; or a system
in which calls travel across the Internet or
to a gateway, which converts the signal to
analog and allows users to interconnect
with those using traditional phones.
IP-based communications can also
support videoconferencing and contact
centers, points out Arjun Mehra, an
analyst at AMI Partners, a research and
consulting firm based in New York.
Ringing in a New Era
At Commerce, IP-based telephony has
ushered in a new era of efficiency and
productivity. The agency's main office in
Washington, D.C., and a large U.S. Census
Bureau complex in Suitland, Md., switched
over to IP-based telephony in 2002, and
nearly one-quarter of the agency's workforce
now relies on these phones to make calls.
Hogan says the switch has eliminated
the need to reprogram a PBX system when
workers change offices, since an IP-based
phone carries a user's data with it and
can be plugged in at the new office.
IP-based telephony has also reduced
administrative and training costs. "There
is one integrated network to manage
rather than separate voice and data
networks," Hogan points out.
The technology offers other advantages
as well. The agency has developed a phone
interface that lets employees use their IP-based phone to search the Commerce
Department's phone directory to dial a
person without entering a string of
numbers. The phones also have Caller ID,
and the system can record the phone
number or extension of missed calls.
Finally, Commerce utilizes IP-based
telephony to support an emergency
broadcast network that can multicast an
emergency message in audio and text form,
and repeat the message, if necessary.
Employees can listen to and view the
messages on their IP-based phones.
Incorporating Web browsing and
database lookup into phones enables
organizations to put important data in the
hands of people when and where they
need it, says Synergy's Vance. "There are
many situations where it's inconvenient or
impossible to access an application on a
personal computer," he says. Employee
directories are a natural fit for IP-based
phones, but agencies can also use the
phones to display news, performance
metrics and other data.
Clear, Reliable Communications
Although IP-based communications
technology has been around for years, it
only recently has evolved from a leading-edge technology that's suitable for niche
applications to a mainstream tool. Frost &
Sullivan, a New York-based research and
consulting firm, projects that VoIP traffic
will account for about 75 percent of the
world's voice traffic by 2007.
Research firm In-Stat/MDR in Scottsdale,
Ariz., predicts that use of "live" IP-based
video (two-way video for interactive
communications and one-way video for
information distribution) will jump from
about 17 percent of the total video market
in 2003 to 42 percent in 2007.
A growing number of federal agencies
are turning to this technology to connect
offices across vast geographical regions.
Some, like the U.S. Forest Service, are also
taking the technology into the field. Within
the agency's Intermountain Region,
headquartered in Ogden, Utah, IP-based
networks transport two-way radio traffic
providing first-response communications
for wildland firefighters on nine of the
Region's 13 national forests scattered across
California, Idaho, Nevada, Utah and
Instead of using traditional
channelized microwave circuits to carry
two-way radio voice, the Forest Service
relies on a digital IP-based voice
technology and its wide-area networks.
This technology integration point has
improved voice quality and expanded the
functionality of the Region's two-way
analog radio systems. Upon completion,
this move will have cost less than $3
million and saved the Intermountain
Region up to $15 million in microwave
system replacement costs, which is
quite beneficial during this time of
cutbacks and reduced budgets.
"There's a noted improvement in
voice quality using the digital circuits,"
says Mike Field, director of Region 4
Information Systems and Technology.
What's more, the radio IP-based
system provides the Forest Service with
greater interoperability, flexibility and
enhanced tactical operations with its
co-operators. "Because the system is
standards based," says Field, "a person in
a dispatch center in Atlanta can manage
tactical operations in southern Idaho."
The Intermountain region is also
migrating to IP-based phones in its offices.
A Galaxy of IP Possibilities
IP-based communications technology
promises to change the way many federal
agencies interact during the next decade.
For example, IP-based video, which is
already in use by agencies such as NASA
and the Veterans Affairs Department, is
helping people connect over vast
NASA uses IP-based telephony and
video to connect astronauts stationed on
the International Space Station with family
and friends on Earth. Using a notebook PC,
astronauts can dial out and reach someone
on an ordinary phone via a digital satellite
link. Families also can participate in
videoconferencing sessions from private
rooms at the Johnson Space Center in
Houston or from their homes. In addition,
the space agency is deploying IP-based
telephony for earthbound communications
at its regional space-flight centers.
Because IP-based videoconferencing
runs over a digital network, it delivers a
higher quality picture and has fewer jumpy
images and dropped frames than would a
system based on an analog network.
IP-based video also offers viewing on
demand and enables agencies to connect
with their employees at remote sites. This
capability can be used for training,
employee orientation and informational
videos, as well as for sending radiological
and other medical images.
But such uses are only the beginning.
"IP-based video is an emerging application
that will play a significant role in
communication," Synergy's Vance predicts.
Advances in the technology, lower
prices, and improved security and ease of
use are putting IP-based communications
on the radar screen for government
agencies. These systems promise to
streamline processes, reduce costs, improve
service and boost performance.
"The technology is creating a new era
of communications," Vance declares.
IP COMMUNICATIONS CALLING
The benefits of using IP-based communications are as numerous as
the agencies that are considering using them. Here are five of the top
reasons to consider IP-based communications:
Enhanced capabilities. IP-based communications technology
offers several advantages over conventional communications tools.
Unified messaging routes e-mail, voice mail and faxes into a single
inbox, which is particularly convenient for people who are away from
the office. It also lets users directly access the Internet or a company
database and view information on the unit's display.
Lower network administration costs. Converging voice and
data onto a single network platform lets IT consolidate expertise
and resources. The result is less specialization and less training.
Costs to reconfigure a PBX can run from $75 to $125 per employee,
but IP-based telephony offers a near-zero cost to use. Multiplied over
thousands of employees, IP can result in significant savings.
Lower technology costs. Conventional PBX and telephony can
prove expensive. With an IP-based network, an agency need add only
the hardware and software for IP telephony or videoconferencing to
take advantage of operational savings. The cost of IP-based phones
and other gear has dropped dramatically during the past few years.
Improved performance. Some applications, including video,
perform much better over an IP-based network than over an analog
connection. Picture quality improves, jumpy images disappear and
dropped frames are almost nonexistent. And setting up an IP-based
videoconferencing session requires no advance preparation.
Greater productivity. IP-based telephony can improve the flow
of information by making data available on-screen and by combining
voice mail, e-mail and faxes on a single platform. An IP-based contact
center can use Caller ID or a PIN to pull up the appropriate records
for a customer or account holder. If a representative transfers
the call, the data follows. An IP-based contact center can also tie
seamlessly into support via the Web.
PROJECTED WORLDWIDE IP TELEPHONY GROWTH RATE
2007 - 38%
Source: In-Stat/MDR, July 2003