“The upgrades allowed the university to get the users up and running during the pandemic,” says David Lyons, Chief of Telecommunications, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences

Jul 27 2021

VoIP Upgrades Bring New Features to Federal Phone Systems

Agencies find additional flexibility with internet-based communications networks.

At the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, a U.S. government medical training institution, David Lyons has been upgrading the phones.

In 2015, USU — which educates ­students who want to serve in federal health professions, similar to the ­mission of the military academies — converted its phones from conventional analog lines to Voice over Internet Protocol. In such systems, voice is converted to a digital signal, allowing users to make calls directly from a computer, a VoIP phone or other data-driven device.

Recently, the USU system underwent a series of enhancements as part of a five-year plan for telephony ­management, purchasing a host of Cisco Systems products. “There is a ­perception that government is always behind, always trying to play catch-up,” says Lyons, chief of telecommunications at USU.

“Our leadership had the foresight to plan out things ahead, to look five years out and to do the preparation, to get the funding. The foresight makes a difference.”

USU is not alone. Emerging features and capabilities within VoIP are prompting some federal agencies to embrace IP telephony, while those who are already on VoIP systems are pursuing a range of upgrades.

How VoIP Supports Telework for Agencies

VoIP has gained traction in recent years for government use. New and emerging features are drawing heightened attention, experts say, and the pandemic-driven rush to work from home has only accelerated that interest.

“It’s the flexibility — any place, any device, any modality. You’re not chained to your desk,” says IEEE Life Fellow Stuart Lipoff. “It will work on an app on your cellphone, it will work on your tablet or on your home computer.”

Thanks to recent enhancements, which CDW•G helped to implement, Lyons used the IP-based system to directly support USU’s pandemic response. “The upgrades allowed the university to get the users up and running during the pandemic, to troubleshoot any issues and have everybody work remotely during this time,” he says.

Those upgrades incorporated an implementation of Cisco Jabber, which is a tool that delivers instant messaging, voice and video calls, voice messaging and conferencing. That functionality provided a major boost during the pandemic.

“It allows your number to follow you anywhere,” Lyons says. “You’re able to pull up your communication profile just as if you were in the office.”

In addition, USU also deployed Cisco Emergency Responder to implement increased functionality for emergency calling. New Singlewire InformaCast Fusion also sends instant messages to those on campus during emergencies.

David Lyons, Chief of Telecommunications, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences
It allows your number to follow you anywhere. You’re able to pull up your communication profile just as if you were in the office.”

David Lyons Chief of Telecommunications, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences

“We were able to configure our system so that, if you dial 911 from any location within the VoIP environment, it would go out directly to the local public safety answering point or on-base emergency responders. We can also pinpoint an exact building and room number,” Lyons says.

“We were also able to set up a middleman for each of our buildings, an actual point of contact to meet the responders when they come onto the location,” he says.

The university also made upgrades to its IP-based voicemail. “We are able to have voicemail online, which means users can log in to their voicemail via an internet connection and play back and delete their voicemails,” Lyons says.

RELATED: How will agencies prepare for a shift to hybrid work?

NRC Updates and Unifies Phone Systems 

Uniformed Services University isn’t the only government agency looking to expand on its VoIP telephony. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has undertaken a number of VoIP upgrades.

NRC began transitioning to VoIP in fall 2018 and completed the changeover in early 2019. The agency wanted to unify a fragmented system.

“We had close to 10 different phone systems, and we weren’t really operating as a single voice communications platform. You would have to dial a 9 and a seven-digit number just to get to another phone that might be in an office across the hall,” says CIO David Nelson.

“This offered us a way to reduce our costs, replace the platforms that we had and start moving toward the new digital capabilities,” he says.

The VoIP system also relieves some logistical issues around telephony, Nelson adds: “As you are moving and creating new office space, you don’t have to run separate cable for your networks and your phones.”

Recent enhancements have built upon that base. This includes a transition to a digital voicemail system, one that is readily accessible across the agency.

61%

The percentage of ­businesses planning to switch to VoIP when their traditional phone contracts end

Source: Blueface, “Business Communications Technology: Insights Report 2018,” January 2019

“It allows us to get our voicemails over our email. You can see the message and listen through your email,” Nelson says. “And it supports us with disaster recovery. If we have a failure at headquarters, we can service all of our telecom needs for the agency from a platform in one of our regions. We have had that happen, and now we have that redundancy built in.”

Now NRC plans to continue expanding upon its digital assets. The agency is looking at transitioning from ­conventional desk phones to softphones, software-driven end devices that leverage the digital nature of VoIP to expand functionality and accessibility.

“The softphone replaces the physical desk phone. It means people can move freely across our campus, and with the convergence of telecommunications and IT, we can streamline our services for an improved customer experience,” says Tom Ashley, director of IT services development and operations.

That added level of mobility will support end users at multiple locations and will factor into the agency’s post-­pandemic communications strategy.

“We have a completely wireless campus; we are able to take our mobile desktops anywhere,” Nelson says. “And if remote work continues to be prominent, people will be able to work anywhere.”

In an era of heightened cyber concerns, VoIP may also make it easier to implement tools such as two-factor authentication. In fact, at USU, Lyons made security enhancements a key part of his VoIP upgrade.

“We had to upgrade our functionality and configure our systems to prevent any fraudulent calls, and we worked hand in hand with cybersecurity to get the system upgraded,” he says. 

VoIP Delivers Productivity and User Experience Benefits for Agencies 

Lyons likewise had productivity in mind when he upgraded the call center function within his VoIP system.

“We purchased Cisco Unified Contact Center Express to allow our help desk department to manage its calls,” he says. “The help desk people log in through Cisco Jabber. It allows us to ensure no calls go unanswered.”

For those looking to implement or upgrade VoIP, the NRC’s Nelson offers a few insights. For instance, it’s important to ensure that quality of service is written into the master plan. 

“If you lose a data packet in a chat session, no one notices. But if you lose voice packets, that will affect the user experience,” he says.

The result can be choppy, hard-to-understand calls. “You need good monitoring tools to pick up on that right away,” he says.

Photography By T.J. Kirkpatrick