Leaving a legacy?

The small and once tepid industry of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) has taken its position in the spotlight. Industry analysts expect interest and uptake of this technology to grow at phenomenal rates as organizations look to update their legacy voice systems. But what role is there for this integrated technology in the public sector?

VoIP is drawing considerable attention from both large and small businesses largely because of its appeal in terms of efficiency and manageability. This, however, also makes VoIP an attractive option for public sector organizations. The federal government, for example, employs nearly 400,000 people in every corner of the country. VoIP could help meet seemingly contradictory pressures to minimize costs, efficiently allocate resource, and improve service delivery; ultimately doing more with less. Through prudent management and technological innovation, many drawbacks of VoIP are being overcome, making it a realistic service delivery enabler for government.

Efficiency A major factor driving the VoIP agenda is its bandwidth efficiency. VoIP requires much less bandwidth than a traditional circuit-switched network, enabling more calls to be carried through a single link. Less bandwidth to carry more data means significant cost savings.

These days, VoIP also comes with several new features and greatly improves those features already commonly used. For example, remote access to telephone, fax and e-mail via a single interface can dramatically improve communications, facilitate virtual teamwork and more effectively support a mobile workforce. This is a key advantage for organizations like the federal government, whose employees may travel across the country and around the world.

Manageability VoIP consolidates voice and data networks, requiring only one type of infrastructure (data only) and one type of staff. The resulting structural and human resource integration significantly reduces operating expenses. Improved manageability of the system makes VoIP more flexible. Features can now be easily customized for end users from the desktop, offering potential productivity gains as employees have more power over their communications.

While VoIP provides the platform for these benefits, the opportunity to ensure that they are harnessed lies in the hands of government and how it chooses to deploy this technology.

Holding back Still, VoIP may not be the panacea that many claim it is – despite its potential to increase efficiency and dramatically reduce costs. Issues of quality, reliability, security and even initial cost concerns continue to hinder its adoption.

SECURITY AND RELIABILITY Security issues can pose a challenge for VoIP. Public switched telephone network (PSTN) provides a dedicated line for each phone call whereas IP networks share transport lines and are thus more susceptible to eavesdropping and other security breaches. VoIP is also much less reliable than the existing PSTN, which has redundancies and back-ups not yet matched by IP infrastructure. QUALITY OF SERVICE In many instances, the quality of service (QoS) offered by VoIP continues to lag well behind the PSTN. This is problematic because users expect the same quality of service from VoIP as they do from the PSTN. QoS is also unpredictable because heavy traffic over data lines will hobble VoIP service as data and voice compete for bandwidth.

COST Although cost is considered a major benefit of VoIP, the impact is more prevalent for operating expenses and much less so for infrastructure investments, which can be significant. A more robust data network and IP telephone sets are just two culprits that can raise capital expenditure and slow return on investment. Additional costs come from training requirements; systems administrators who have worked in either IP or telephony would need training to merge these once disparate skill sets. All these challenges are real. But the implementation of VoIP at Foreign Affairs Canada shows how one of the federal government’s most high profile departments addressed these concerns, maximizing the advantages of VoIP while minimizing its weaknesses.

VoIP at FAC: Better, Faster, Cheaper On July 30, Foreign Affairs Canada (FAC) announced it had signed a three-year $68 million contract with Bell Canada for the provision of an integrated IP solution. Included in this package is the migration from MITNET 2000 (the current legacy system) to the IP-based MITNET 2004. The initial deployment of VoIP gateways will include FAC in Ottawa (which also includes International Trade Canada) and 58 missions abroad. This represents more than 2,900 clients. While many remain skeptical of VoIP, the FAC case demonstrates that many of its downfalls can be overcome. The choice to move to VoIP was ultimately based on the fact that it is “better, faster and cheaper,” says Jennie Chen of FAC. While cost savings were the initial driver in the business case, it quickly became clear that quality of service and functionality could also be increased while at the same time maintaining cost reductions.

When considering security, reliability and quality concerns – along with the $68 million price tag – one might wonder why Foreign Affairs and its embassies, with their highly sensitive communications, would lead the charge on VoIP. At this early stage in the life of the project, it seems that FAC has chosen either to avoid potential problem areas altogether or to simply demand better. In terms of demanding better, Gary Cameron, Bell Canada’s Vice-President, Enterprise Accounts, commented: “The reality is that the service level agreements DFAIT has set for this contract are as stringent as we’ve seen from any customer. They’re very challenging.”

SECURITY Many security concerns are being overcome by the fact that MITNET 2004 will not actually transmit data over the public Internet. Rather, by establishing a Virtual Private Network (VPN) entirely run and maintained by Bell, FAC is side-stepping one of the biggest problems with VoIP. Not only does this make data safe from eavesdropping, but the VPN technology also enables the use of much more sophisticated and secure encryption technology that was not feasible over the legacy system.

RELIABILITY FAC’s VPN solution also easily resolves questions of reliability. “The core network is survivable,” says Cameron. “If one path is down for whatever reason, the intelligence of the VPN automatically looks for another route. There’s a self healing capability in a VPN that doesn’t exist in a legacy data network. The fact that there is no single point of failure greatly enhances the system’s reliability.”

QUALITY FAC has also managed to sidestep problem areas such as QoS and training. MITNET 2004 provides an IP backbone but does not put IP technology on the desktops of users. The internal PBX systems are connected to the IP backbone where central quality control is enabled. The abcence of VoIP on desktops also avoids training issues and provides a seamless transition for users. While FAC will be merging its voice and data staff, officials report no problems at this point. This will be an important area to monitor and learn from as other departments move towards VoIP.

Moving forward? Should the public sector embrace VoIP? As in the private sector, service delivery and cost are among the major drivers for the federal government in moving towards VoIP. In comparing private and public sector organizations, Cameron says, “In terms of the use of technology, I don’t think there’s any difference between what FAC would experience and anybody who has a large multinational company.” In fact, VoIP may find more fertile soil to grow in the public sector, given pressures from expenditure review. The 2004 Speech from the Throne also drives the message of fiscal responsibility, pushing Prime Minister Martin’s agenda of cost and debt reductions. With departmental budgets growing ever tighter, innovation can be a good source of new efficiencies.

Furthermore, streamlining tech support, maximizing bandwidth efficiency, reducing both long-distance charges and maintenance costs all make a compelling argument towards the bottom line. The government is also becoming a client-centric organization focused on how it provides services to citizens. Through alternative service delivery (ASD) initiatives, the government is seeking new ways to improve its services to Canadians and ensure their needs drive the agenda. VoIP provides new features, such as remote and integrated communications, that can make for a more responsive public service. IP networks also enable enhanced metrics, which can more accurately gauge performance. Finally, the cost reductions release tax dollars that can be reallocated to other service improvement initiatives.

Treasury Board Secretariat identifies citizen centricity, public service values, results management and value for money as the core elements of ASD. VoIP, when deployed carefully, can match this profile quite well. While security has been a major concern with VoIP, technological advancements combined with effective system architecture can eliminate many of the problems. Although VoIP, in general, does still have security problems, it is being demonstrated that measures can be taken to supply the degree of security required by even the most demanding organizations, FAC being a case in point.

Kellen Greenberg (Kelleng@intoinfo.com) is a research consultant with The Intoinfo Consulting Group of Ottawa. Eric Pich

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