FTS 2001 rolls into the Pacific

The General Services Administration has rolled out its high-speed FTS 2001 telecommunications service to the Pacific, a move that should enable federal officials to save money by conducting videoconferences instead of traveling from island to island for meetings.

The advent of FTS 2001 to U.S. islands in the Pacific could become a powerful tool for federal courts, which often have to ship prisoners or attorneys back and forth between islands for meetings or for legal proceedings.

Alex Munson, chief judge for the U.S. District Court of the Northern Marianas, said the island of Saipan has no prison certified to hold federal prisoners. For example, a suspect in a federal crime who is arrested on a weekend—when court on Saipan is not in session—must be moved south to Guam to await arraignment. At arraignment, the prisoner must be transported back to Saipan. If a judge denies bail, the prisoner must travel back to Guam to await trial. That back-and-forth travel cost the federal court system $4.88 million during the past year, according to Munson.

U.S. Marshals also spend large amounts of time escorting prisoners among the islands.

The high-speed telecommunications service, which FTS 2001 vendor Sprint provides via a combination of satellite service and undersea cables, should eliminate the need for travel and should lower costs, Munson said. "We think we can eliminate most of that," he said. "[Videoconferencing] is cheaper. It's safer. It's a lot more convenient."

Federal offices, such as courts in the Pacific, have been using traditional telephone conferences and dial-up data communications to share information, according to Sprint, which, along with Lucent Technologies, put in place the equipment needed for the new high-speed data service in the Pacific. Munson said videoconferencing will ease the sharing of information such as exhibits for legal proceedings.

Courts in the Pacific tested videoconferencing Nov. 16, when Sprint, Lucent and the General Services Administration connected judges online in San Francisco, Guam, Saipan and Hawaii. John Schroder, Sprint account manager for GSA, said the videoconference represented the first videoconference among Pacific islands for the agency. "They [GSA officials] wanted to provide a better quality of information technology services to these offshore locations," said Nancy Mercure, Sprint branch manager. "They want to provide the same service that's available on the mainland," Schroder said.

"Connecting Guam, Saipan, Hawaii and the continental United States by a high-speed telecommunications pipe fast enough to provide not only enhanced voice and data service at low cost but also multicast live video is no longer a dream," GSA officials said in a prepared statement. "It is now a practical and everyday reality."

Susan Mollway, the Hawaii-based federal judge who participated in the Nov. 16 videoconference test, said the potential for regular use of videoconferences is considerable. "I think we can have witnesses who can testify by teleconference," she said. "Many of the witnesses in our trials are on the mainland."

Legal barriers to long-distance testimony or trial-related meetings may be few. Munson said some courts in the nation already conduct business by videoconference. Mollway said court officials will have to decide on a case-by-case basis what business they want to conduct via videoconference.

But Mollway said videoconferencing can be a tool to increase the accessibility of courts, witnesses and other people involved in the legal process. "The more accessible you can make it, the better," she said. "To get [videoconferencing] right in the courtroom, that would definitely be a plus."

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