States Continue Down Convergence Path
Aim to deliver lower costs, improved collaboration, and business alignment via unified statewide networks
For today's state governments, with their many agencies, vastly distributed field offices, and multiple networks, the integration of voice, video, and data into a single statewide network promises lower costs, improved collaboration, and enhanced security. But fragmented and often incompatible technologies, complex support requirements, and disparate policies and procedures across agencies are among the many challenges that can hinder the realization of these promises.
In this article, I explore how convergence of voice, video, and data into a single network can overcome these challenges.
Challenges of Decentralized Networks
Many state governments are giving strategic priority to moving away from highly decentralized and distributed agency networks into a unified centralized statewide network to better align technology with business goals. In Colorado, for example, the Office of Information Technology, which is responsible for centralized, statewide IT management, purchasing, and planning, inherited a mixture of PBXs, POTS, and voice mail systems supporting 28,000 users located in 1,300 locations. Similarly, in California, the state's Office of Technology Services (OTECH) created CALNET to provide state, county, and local governments an array of telecommunications services. OTECH argues that CALNET offers state-of-the-art services and equipment that can be shared at lower rates based on the collective purchasing power of the entire state public sector as well as provide agencies a pool of technology expertise.
But state IT decision makers -- just like their counterparts in private industry -- face an array of challenges in moving to a centralized, shared services model. Agencies have developed their own IT infrastructures and services. Remote field offices lack high-speed bandwidth options. Different firewall policies inhibit consistently sound network security. Network services vary. Maintenance support plans differ. As a result, statewide communications among employees is difficult, operating costs are high, and security threats continue to grow while agencies struggle to meet compliance requirements. This hodgepodge of siloed systems and policies also inhibits states from making full use of IT advancements such as cloud computing, big-data analysis, and the Internet of Things (IoT).
To unify their highly distributed services and systems, more states are converging voice, video, and data. Ohio's IT Optimization initiative, for example, called for converging the voice, video, and data networks of 17 Ohio agencies into a statewide VoIP solution. It replaced an outdated, costly, and inefficient Centrex telephone system with VoIP. Some of the new statewide features included a statewide dialing plan, caller ID, and conference calling.
Rather than managing the "phone business" itself, the state adopted a cloud-based hosting arrangement. In 2014, the network supported more than 25,000 users in 50 agencies, boards, commissions, and universities. The state estimated an annual cost savings of more than $2 million. Other cited benefits include a more robust, resilient, and improved network with a more standardized, structured approach, supporting many future IT efforts.
Lastly, in 2016, the National Association of State Chief Information Officers awarded Ohio the 2016 State IT Recognition Award for its work in rolling out a statewide VoIP and unified communications network. According to the Ohio Office of Budget and Management, the statewide network saved more than $5 million in the first 18 months of adoption. The state also reported greater leveraging of unified communications technology to enhance operations, reduce travel expenses, and increase training opportunities.
What Is Convergence?
Convergence brings together long separated voice, video, and data into a single IP network. No longer do organizations need separate infrastructures and support structures for phones, email, and instant messaging, as well as video and Web conferencing. Convergence uses IP to route encapsulated voice and video traffic over data networks, seeking the most efficient routes. Government agencies do not necessarily need to purchase new bandwidth to deliver convergence. By prioritizing applications, agencies can make room for latency-sensitive business applications, such as data mining and big-data analysis, as well as the new voice and video traffic.
Advantages of Convergence
While state IT decision makers take many considerations into account when developing convergence strategies, many focus on three major factors: cost savings, advanced applications that improve collaboration, and strategic business/IT alignment.
- Cost Savings: Although convergence enables cost savings on many levels, let's focus on trunking. By converging all network elements -- transport, devices, and applications -- into one seamless infrastructure, IT can aggregate existing trunks to lower costs. With a traditional telephony system, agencies paid for their own T1/PRI trunks, whether the organization used them or not. In addition, agencies often have too many trunks due to the fact that over the years they have not deleted excess capacity as organizational requirements changed. With a statewide network, IT can reduce costs by aggregating traffic on a single IP port and pooling chunks of under-utilized bandwidth. Other benefits include leveraging high-capacity nodes to provide multiple live points of connection to a provider, geo-redundancy, and neutralizing seasonal surges in trunking requirements (e.g., to handle seasonal calls to the state transportation department for winter road conditions). In addition to fewer trunks, states can realize major savings by replacing traditional analog and digital PRI lines with Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) trunking, which usually follows the installation of IP-PBXs and IP phones as the last phase in an agency's conversion to VoIP. SIP trunks interconnect auxiliary voice communication systems such as voice messaging, call recording, and interactive voice response. SIP savings can come from many areas. With SIP trunking, the vast majority of calls never touch the costly PSTN network but rather remain on the statewide network. In a single network, dedicated and costly PRI and analog phone lines are eliminated. And because many government agencies operate from multiple locations, they can share SIP trunks among locations, pooling resources to gain efficiency. Furthermore, they can realize savings on intra- and interagency long-distance calls. Because interagency calls travel over the statewide network, the state incurs no traditional carrier costs. Lastly, SIP may save on "800" number charges. SIP trunking allows agencies to have local numbers, letting residents and suppliers dial locally rather than requiring support for more expensive 800 numbers. Based on experience by my firm, Technology Plus, SIP trunking can reduce trunking costs by at least 45%.
- Improved Collaboration and Communications: Convergence allows the introduction of a wide range of value-added applications such IM, presence, conferencing (Web, audio, video) and social networking via UC. To overcome a hodgepodge of services and tools that employees were patching together to create collaboration, for example, the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) deployed a UC solution among its 1,800 employees and numerous external partners. ITD covers a large state with a small staff, and UC services allowed employees to communicate at all times, even while traveling. The department's IT department also reported that UC enabled new tools and training videos so users could troubleshoot problems on their own, which further reduced direct IT involvement. In another example, the Alabama Department of Public Health installed UC to improve client satisfaction across the agency's 110 field offices. Callers needing information and contacting program staff were greeted with IVR menus. But the service provider-based WAN supporting the IVR did not provide quality-of-service (QoS) capabilities, and voice call quality suffered. As a result, the department saw high numbers of dropped calls, and irate callers. To fix the problem, the department used a programming script that resided on each site's router. This allowed deploying each county's menus locally while providing centralized maintenance from the Montgomery headquarters. In addition, each county's IVR supported automatic dialing of specific telephone extensions or live operator contact via "0." By installing the IVR application's audio files on the local router, the department eliminated the need for transporting them across the WAN and saw clearer voice prompts and better service as a result. In addition, the department deployed UC-based unified messaging, combining voicemail and email in one mailbox. Messages pop up in email, and employees have the option of playing them or retrieving them by telephone and listening to them.
- Strategic Business/IT Alignment (Including Security Management): Convergence is driven not only by cost savings and the need to lay a foundation for collaborative UC applications, but also to support business/IT alignment. Alignment is a major issue for many states because it directly impacts the ability to meet current and future business needs, as well as to improve services, control investments, and enhance security. Indeed, aligning security with technology investments is a priority for many states in this age of growing hacks and compliance. In NASCIO's 2017 list of state CIO goals, security topped the list of priority strategies for the third consecutive year. In Colorado, for example, the mission of the Governor's Office of Information Technology (OIT) is "to securely enable the effective, efficient and elegant delivery of government services through trusted partnerships and technology." To this end, its Office of Information Security (OIS) is the state's primary source for cybersecurity management, compliance oversight, and applications security policies and best practices. Convergence is taking place against this security alignment backdrop. As the National Institute of Standards and Technology noted in its recommendations for secure VoIP communications, establishing a secure VoIP and data network is a complex process that requires greater effort than that required for data-only networks. Many challenges face state CIOs in securing statewide networks (. In some states, the use of softphones and UC applications are restricted because of the reluctance to physically combine voice and data circuits. In others, differing agency firewall and security practices and policies are important vulnerabilities to address. Yet, all state CIOs need to secure their networks for reasons including compliance to regulations such as HIPAA. To secure convergence, states are actively creating security management frameworks, architectures and policies. Arizona, among other states, has published policies addressing network perimeter security, endpoint security, and network access, for example. In Colorado, OIS has established auditing and incident reporting processes.
In summary, convergence is key to realizing technology and business opportunities for state governments. Creating a single, statewide network presents many challenges, including connecting highly distributed, often remote field offices, incompatible technology, complex support requirements, and differing policies and procedures. But convergence technologies such as SIP trunking offer important cost savings while UC enables increased collaboration and communications in state bureaucracies. More importantly, convergence enables the strategic business/IT alignment needed to meet state current and future technology and business priorities including security.
"SCTC Perspectives" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communications technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.