Arizona set for telecom makeover

Converged network will offer security, VOIP and other features

In the next several years, Arizona's state government will transform its aging telecommunications network into a new converged network, adding centralized security, voice over IP (VOIP) and other advanced features.

This spring, state officials signed a $98 million deal with Accenture, which will not only develop the next-generation voice, video and data network but also manage it for the next five years.

The contract is a result of a state law that created a Telecommunications Program Office within the Department of Administration to provide consistent management procedures, services and technology statewide through a shared telecom infrastructure called the Arizona Network, or AZNet. The initiative also has a governance structure with representatives from more than a dozen agencies providing oversight.

Alan Ecker, a department spokesman, said state officials initially thought outsourcing the telecom network would result in significant savings, but they later realized it wouldn't be that substantial.

"But it was worth going forward and doing anyway because we're going to end up with better equipment and better procedures in the future," he said.

Laura Ward, senior program manager at the state's Telecommunications Program Office, said Arizona will put any savings back into the network. She said that by voice-enabling the wide-area network, for example, state agencies will reduce their long-distance charges but then reinvest those savings into newer technologies.

Steve Demarest, a partner at Accenture, said Arizona appears to be a leader among states in modernizing their telecom systems. For example, while other states are still deploying VOIP telephones in pilot tests, Arizona already has about 10 percent of its 40,000 employees using IP telephony. Earlier this year, nine state agencies completed installation of 5,000 Cisco Systems VOIP phones in separate deals.

There's a traditional telecom mind-set in some larger states, Demarest said. First, states are trying to extend the life of their technology past the point of replacement. Second, many states are still focusing on commodity carrier service contracts, he said.

"They're looking to drive down per-minute rates and really focus just on their interaction with the carriers, not so much on trying to put all state telecommunication operations under some type of a consistent management enterprise," Demarest said.

In addition to upgrading the state's core telecom ring and getting higher bandwidth, other initiatives include adding redundant features for emergency preparedness and consolidating storage complexes. One of the major advantages of AZNet is centralized security rather than every agency being responsible for its own security, Ward said.

"The sophistication of hackers is increasing daily," she said. "We will have a secure network that is managed and monitored 24 hours a day."

Ward said about 25 percent of the agencies are now getting services through the new contract, and in September, the remaining 75 percent will be transitioned to the new services, a process that will take six months.

However, officials said a committee is working on the issue of how state agencies will fund development of the network.

A leader among states

Arizona may well be a leader among the states in modernizing its tele-communications infrastructure. Earlier this year, nine Arizona agencies representing about 5,000 employees — about 10 percent of the state's workforce — switched to Cisco Systems voice-over-IP telephones in separate deals with multiple resellers.

DJ Harper, a spokesman for the state's Government Information Technology Agency, said the VOIP technology has improved efficiency at some agencies. For example, he said workers at the Department of Revenue, which had three phone systems, could not transfer calls from one department to another. Another department needed an outside line to connect to employees elsewhere.

Faisal Hanafi, Cisco's customer solutions manager, said more states are looking at VOIP telecom as a way to increase productivity, reduce costs and transform the way the government delivers services, especially in rural areas where telecom costs are high.

For example, he said the Texas Health and Human Services Commission is deploying an IP-based 211 dialing code for community-based information and referral services to save the agency money and improve services.

Hanafi said the biggest challenge to greater adoption is awareness and education about what opportunities the technology provides. However, he said he anticipates an acceleration of voice-over-IP and IP communications in the public and private sectors.

— Dibya Sarkar

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