Is government really a voice-over-IP trendsetter?

According to a new report, government is the king of convergence

Former Treasury Department Chief Information Officer Jim Flyzik wrote a column in these pages a few years ago in which he said government CIOs will know they are doing a good job when private-sector CIOs talk about copying the government's best practices and not the other way around.

When it comes to one technology at least — Internet telephony, also known as voice over IP — it seems that day has come. Market researcher In-Stat reports that the government leads all industries in adopting VOIP, with 48 percent of agencies surveyed saying they use the communications technology.

VOIP works by digitizing the sound of a caller’s voice and sending it via IP networks that were originally built to transfer data between computers. That convergence of voice and data on one infrastructure can provide many operational benefits and cost savings as agencies wean themselves from traditional analog phone services that are more expensive and less flexible than their digital counterparts.

But VOIP is just the start. After you’ve mastered moving voices around on the data network, you’ve laid the groundwork for other upgrades, such as adding videoconferencing or integrating different communication methods — such as instant messaging, voice, video and social media — into one tidy little system for customer service or internal collaboration.

The name for that is unified communications, and the government appears to be a leader there, as well. Twenty-eight percent of federal information technology decision-makers said they are implementing or have already deployed a unified communications system, compared with only 18 percent of medium to large businesses, according to a survey by technology provider CDW Government.

One caveat: Unlike VOIP, unified communications can mean different things to different people, so surveys about it need to be viewed with a more discerning eye.

Still, what explains the government being out in front on digital convergence? Or is it just a fluke, a sampling error in some surveys or a case of mistaken identity with certain technologies? This time, it seems, the numbers don’t lie.

First, VOIP can be an easier nut to crack in government than in the private sector for one important reason. Unlike most companies, government agencies typically give responsibility for telecommunications to the CIO and IT department. That means moving from plain-old telephone service to VOIP doesn’t represent an existential threat to a whole department, as it can in the business world.

“When VOIP was first introduced, the turf battles were a huge issue,” said Norm Bogen, vice president of research at In-Stat. “Those battles have mitigated recently because more organizations have put telecom under IT” — the way it is in government.

Another reason the skids have been greased for VOIP in the public sector is the general robustness of government data networks. Delivering quality voice services, not to mention video, is much more taxing technically on an IP network than just moving around data and e-mail messages.

The Defense Department decided a decade ago to invest heavily in networks for warfighters that would not be constrained by bandwidth capacity, while on the civilian side, many agencies have deployed fault-tolerant, redundant infrastructure because of the critical nature of their missions, said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting.

“These [characteristics] are essential before you can move to VOIP,” Suss said.

Lastly, most agencies are taking a relatively sophisticated approach to capital planning and investment, so as traditional phone systems approach the end of their useful life, officials can anticipate and create a process for transitions to new technologies such as VOIP, Suss said.

That kind of replacement cue prompted the Census Bureau to become one of the first organizations to commit to VOIP in 1999. Today, VOIP is fully deployed at Census, with about 10,000 employees depending on it, said Scott Williams, chief of the bureau’s telecom office.

With the basics in place, the bureau's VOIP system now benefits whenever the agency upgrades its core networks. For example, the deployment of a wireless system allows IT help-desk and security staff to carry wireless VOIP phones instead of expensive cell phones as they move throughout the Suitland, Md., headquarters.

Also, the bureau has upgraded to next-generation IP Version 6 and a super-fast 1 gigabit/sec transfer rate, positioning it to more easily capitalize on unified communication productivity perks, such as videoconferencing and unified messaging across e-mail, voice and wireless applications.

Elsewhere, the Social Security Administration is in the middle of a $300 million enterprisewide VOIP implementation that will affect about 62,000 employees and 1,300 field offices and be one of the largest single VOIP systems in the world. If that’s not trendsetting, what is?

About the Author

John Zyskowski is a senior editor of Federal Computer Week. Follow him on Twitter: @ZyskowskiWriter.

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