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States Continue Down Convergence Path

portable 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.

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.