Fed agencies edge toward VOIP

Education, Interior departments step up efforts to deploy IP telephony

When Education Department officials adopted voice-over-IP technology two years ago, they wanted technology that could smoothly handle customers' calls to the Federal Student Aid office. Now, they view voice over IP as a way to save on operational costs and enhance emergency preparedness departmentwide.

Meanwhile, the Interior Department is forging ahead with plans to implement a hybrid voice-over-IP telephone system for its Washington, D.C., area offices, agency officials said.

Some observers say those efforts will convince other officials that civilian agencies can start to reduce telephone expenses and keep operations running in the event of an emergency if they gradually phase in voice over IP.

"Most agencies have a [voice-over-IP] migration [plan] on the table," said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting. "Within the next three years, we'll see a large number of agencies moving into the [voice-over-IP] environment." He warned that government officials should make the switch program by program, ensuring that high-reliability infrastructures are in place before deployment.

Education and Interior are not exclusively using the Internet for voice over IP currently. However, voice-over-IP technology generally enables people to use the Internet to transmit telephone calls. It sends voice information digitally in discrete packets rather than in the traditional circuit protocols of the public switched telephone network.

A major advantage of Internet telephony is that users avoid the tolls charged by telephone services because they don't incur any charges beyond what they pay for Internet access.

Quality of service for voice over IP has improved during the past year and the market is ripe for agency officials to finally implement their plans, said Frank Dzubeck, president and chief executive officer of Communications Network Architects.

"Now, it's beyond the stage of risk," he said. "It's in the stage of being a well-accepted practice. Before, you could always have someone argue against it and say it's not prime time-ready. We don't hear any conservative arguments anymore."

But Jim Dolezal, a lead consultant at Suss Consulting and former chief of telecommunications services at Interior, said, "Everyone is positioning themselves for [voice over IP], but they're not moving forward yet. ... Education is really at the lead." He added that further adoption will depend on the future of Networx, the far-reaching telecom acquisition program that General Services Administration officials are developing.

Isolated voice-over-IP test programs are popping up nationwide, including at federal agencies such as GSA, the Forest Service, Interior and the Social Security Administration.

More than a quarter of Education's employees use Cisco Systems voice-over-IP phones, including workers in the agency's Washington, D.C., headquarters and facilities in Kansas City, Mo.; Dallas; and Atlanta, said Robert Leach, Education's director of information technology operations and maintenance services.

During the next three months, agency officials will expand services to New York and Boston. Voice over IP is being implemented every time department officials remodel or build a facility. Within a year and a half, 90 percent of Education's workforce will be on the voice-over-IP network, Leach said.

Leach and his colleagues particularly enjoy the ability to migrate phone numbers instantaneously when they travel to satellite offices. "When I go to Atlanta, all of my normal capabilities automatically transfer over there and are available to me," he said.

Future plans call for a continuity of operations (COOP) plan in which employees would use voice-over-IP and video-over-IP technology in their homes, enabling them to re-create an office environment during an emergency situation.

Although the current system is not Internet-based, in a COOP situation, Education would potentially deliver voice and video via the Internet to essential employees at their homes. Calls to their office voice-over-IP telephones would automatically be routed through the Internet to a voice-over-IP telephone in their homes.

Earlier this month, IT officials at Interior connected voice-over-IP systems in the department's 3,000-employee main campus building in Washington, D.C. IT employees will implement the systems in the south campus building in June and in Bureau of Land Management (BLM) offices in July.

"We're probably saving 30 [percent] to 35 percent of what it was costing us to provide voice services to our customer base," said Matthew Stewart, chief of technology at Interior's National Business Center. He added that the new system could eventually eliminate long-distance charges for calls to the center's other offices.

A $4.7 million 10-year life cycle contract awarded to Fortran-Compel covers installation and maintenance of equipment for headquarters and offices in the outlying metropolitan area. The contract calls for a hybrid integrated digital voice communication system that can provide digital and limited voice over IP to 12,500 employees. Stewart said the agency will migrate to full voice over IP at headquarters within the year. The business case will dictate how the technology is deployed.

Interior officials chose a system that will not rely on the Internet. Last month, they shut down BLM's Web site after Interior's inspector general issued a report warning that the agency's IT systems were vulnerable to cyberthreats. The shutdown was the latest in a long-running dispute over the security of Indian trust fund information.

All the voice-over-IP phones will operate on a separate virtual local-area network with no remote access. When full voice over IP arrives, the voice and data LANs will be separated by firewalls and physical walls.

Security will be strict, even in the local environment. "Remote maintenance is not allowed on the voice system," said Mikki Smith, a department-level cybersecurity officer. "As far as locally hacking, [the hackers] would have to defeat all the physical security in place."

Voice-over-IP bridge links staff

Voice-over-IP technology helped officials in the Education Department thwart a recent attempt by a hacker in Korea who tried to break into a system in the Federal Student Aid office.

During an April 29 attack, Education's information technology employees used a voice-over-IP bridge to communicate with one another. The bridge allows parties using different network protocols, such as dial tone and voice over IP, to communicate.

Education's IT officials are used to dealing with penetration attempts, which occur every 10 to 15 days, a department spokesman said. So far, no cyberattacks on student financial aid systems have succeeded or hurt the department's ability to serve people, the spokesman added.

About 30 people respond when a cyberattack occurs. "Anytime that we have an external threat, a cyberthreat, we have pre-established [voice-over-IP] bridges that everybody knows to call into as we're dealing with those threats," said Robert Leach, Education's director of IT operations and maintenance services.

— Aliya Sternstein

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