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Some Thoughts About the SSA/Nortel Installation

Tom Keating's recent post on his VoIP & Gadgets blog discussed the new Social Security Administration (SSA) telephony network being installed by Nortel. The SSA implementation will be one of the largest single communications networks of its kind. Keating's comments were none too kind to the SSA for installing a new communications network or selecting a "non-American" company, Nortel, as the system supplier. The following paragraph conveys the general tone of the post:

Now I'm all for Social Security upgrading their phone systems and going VoIP, but $300 million? $300 million? That's just crazy talk. What's in this Nortel phone system--titanium? platinum? Surely, there must be a cheaper, perhaps open source solution that can save the Social Security program millions, which means saving me, the U.S. taxpayer millions.

Of how Nortel won the contract he suggests, "Unless of course they greased some palms at the SSA." I assume Keating meant this to be humorous, although I doubt that the SSA or Nortel see it as such.

As someone familiar with the SSA's RFP requirements and the potential competitive solution, a few thoughts of my own re the situation case:

1. The Nortel solution was designed to replace something that was slapped together over many years without any strategic plan to best serve the needs of the public it served. SSA local locations were supported by a diverse range of antiquated key telephone systems without any intelligent networking linking the regional and local SSA offices. Calls to local offices would often go unanswered with no reporting system to measure quality and efficiency. The new installation will be leveraging ACD features/functions and MIS reporting to better handle incoming calls and also benefit from a more advanced call processing feature set. 2. The cost of the installation may sound high, but considering the size of the network solution (more than 100,000 user endpoints across 1500+ locations) the per station price bid by Nortel is far lower than one would normally see in an enterprise-level proposal. The network has a high level of resiliency with one centralized fully redundant data center hub backing up another. Did Keating look into the RFP requirements or proposed system design before making his comments? Is he also an expert when it comes to communications system pricing? SSA is receiving superior performance capabilities for the price it is paying as compared to what the system being replaced cost. At the time of the proposal I know of no open source solution to save a few dollars, as Keating suggests, that could have handled the size and complexity of the RFP requirements. 3. Plans for the SSA network began many years ago when the economy was booming. It is unfortunate the story about the network came out recently when the economy has been tanking. Should the SSA have retained its antiquated hodge-podge of a communications network from the last century indefinitely? I commend the SSA implanting a new network to greatly improve customer service levels for the millions of individuals calling with social security questions. I'm sure the current TMC ITEXPO show is right now extolling the many advantages and benefits of IP communications in numerous conference sessions and at the exhibit booths. It's very likely that the SSA first decided to go ahead with plans for a new IP communications network when someone at the agency attended VoiceCon when it was held in the Washington, DC, area.

4. The US is Nortel's largest market for its Enterprise Solutions group; hundreds of dealers have benefited from selling and servicing Nortel product over the years. Does Keating know how many American-based employees Nortel has in management and technical positions in support of the dealer network? And if it is brought up that the Nortel solution was not manufactured in the US, it should be pointed out that the solutions from other bidders, such as Avaya and Siemens, were also manufactured outside our borders. Are any telephone instruments from any system supplier manufactured in the USA?

It's easy to criticize a government agency for spending what sounds like a vast some of money for a new communications system, but when the situation is more closely investigated it becomes easier to criticize the critic. It's very unfortunate that many of Keating's comments have been picked up by other publications without knowing the facts of the case.