State IT execs betting on VoIP

In California, there might be a new killer app for voice over Internet protocol (VoIP): balancing the state budget.

A top-to-bottom look at spending called the California Performance Review (CPR) recommends adopting VoIP across state government as a way to save up to US$6.3 million per month statewide. The review, by a panel created by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, says agencies pay anywhere between US$20 and US$117 per month for phone.

In their effort to stretch taxpayer dollars, CPR authors are latching on to just one of the benefits of VoIP — cost — that is making the technology increasingly popular among state IT officials, many of whom are meeting this week in Providence, R.I., at the National Association of State Telecommunications Directors (NASTD) annual conference. Other benefits include support for advanced services, simplifying network architecture and backing up existing systems. A panel of members with experience implementing VoIP plan to share what they’ve learned.

Like California, some other states report savings, but the major force behind VoIP adoption is support for particular applications that IP handles better than traditional systems, particularly call centres. For example, New Jersey’s telecom services agency is offering its first VoIP service, managed IP call centres for departments whose traditional gear is worn out, says David Blackwell, telecom manager for the Office of Information Technology.

Blackwell says the first potential customers, the departments of commerce and human services, are considering linking to the state’s lone Avaya Inc. S8700 VoIP media server to support small call centres by installing remote extensions of the media server in each department. Without the IP technology, each department would have to buy its own PBX and call-centre software, he says.

The IP call centre makes it simpler to distribute the centres across the state in a way traditional call-centre gear cannot, he says. So if a center in northern New Jersey was swamped with calls, adding on a call centre in the south would just be a matter of entering the IP addresses of the phones in the southern centre to the list of phones associated with the northern centre, he says. With a traditional PBX-based call centre, adding and removing phones would be cumbersome.

Meanwhile down in Texas

Texas has put this call-center flexibility to use to establish a human services hotline program in which citizens dial 211 to get information about programs. During business hours, Cisco Systems Inc. Call Center and eLoyalty call-centre software route calls to the nearest of 25 area information centres, but after-hours, they route them to the few information centres open 24 hours per day. The state estimates an 80 per cent savings from what the same 211 system would cost using 800 numbers.

The same equipment could be used in disasters to handle overflow calls, says Jason Shugg, telecom specialist for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. If a hurricane in Galveston, say, caused a spike in calls at the Houston information centre, every third call could be routed to another city. Or calls on hold for more than one minute could be rerouted, he says.

Similarly, if an office had to be evacuated, call agents could take their phones to another information centre, plug in and continue working, he says. The network would recognize the phone’s IP address.

Texas also uses VoIP to trunk traffic between state agencies across the Texas Agency Network (TEXAN) ATM backbone, says Brian Kelly, assistant director of the Texas Telecommunications Services Division. Phone calls from Austin, the capital, to three other cities avoid toll fees by using TEXAN instead of the public long-distance phone network, he says. The state says it will save enough money over 11 months to pay back VoIP equipment costs, Kelly says.

But toll bypass is not a guaranteed way to save money, says Jack Ries, project manager for Minnesota’s InterTechnologies Group.

A study of VoIP to carry phone calls among state facilities over Minnesota’s ATM backbone showed that cost savings, while possible, might not materialize. The cost of equipment, upgrading access lines and reassigning access codes would all eat into potential savings, he says. “There may be cost savings,” he says, “but with cost savings alone, you could probably not justify the cost of the infrastructure needed to do it.”

In the best case, using VoIP for intercity calls could avoid US$870,000 per year in toll calls, based on the study. This includes trunking Minneapolis/St. Paul-bound calls to a public phone network gateway in the twin cities where terminating them would be free.

While the state has doubts about VoIP trunking, there is a push to convert all state call centres to IP within the next year, Ries says, if budgets allow. The attraction is the ability to distribute call agents geographically inexpensively, he says.

Alaska warms up to VoIP

Alaska was an early supporter of VoIP and had plans to install a pilot program of 269 Cisco voice phones more than a year ago, but the project ran afoul.

The service provider to which the state had outsourced its telecom network failed to use Cisco’s best practices, and the system didn’t work. The replacement provider fixed the problems, and the state is looking to expand its VoIP use.

In Anchorage, the state is building new facilities and outfitting them with Category 5e and 6 wiring that has the characteristics specified by the IEEE to support VoIP. “It’s more cost-effective to deploy voice over IP because of reduced wiring costs and lower ongoing operations costs,” says Stan Herrera, Alaska’s CTO.

VoIP also has proved useful in backing up a failing PBX and voice mail system, Herrera says. The state office building in Juneau was hit by lightning earlier this year and the strike disrupted the voice mail system attached to its Nortel PBX. In the future, if the Nortel voice mail dies, the Cisco Unity voice mail system associated with the VoIP gear used in the new buildings can back it up.

The phones still will be run by the PBX, but the VoIP voice mail will handle voice messages. “The Meridian phone sets will be rerouted through that Unity voice mail,” he says.

Herrera says that ultimately one voice/data network should be built for state government.

“We really believe convergence is right for Alaska,” he says. “The high cost of telecommunications in the state and large geographic expanses are challenges for us. It makes sense to distribute more of the technology over a single network versus three separate ones. I’m sure it will show a return on investment.”

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