Interior edges closer to voice over IP

The Interior Department has had the most problems of any Cabinet department lately when it comes to staying online, but that hasn't stopped Interior officials from moving ahead with communications based on IP technology.

In the latest example of the federal government's growing use of voice over IP, Interior officials expect that the department's first major installation of a hybrid voice-over IP telephone system in the Washington, D.C.-area will be completed this weekend. Technicians are scheduled to finish connecting voice-over-IP-enabled systems in the Interior's main campus building, which has offices for 3,000 employees. If all goes as planned, the south campus building will get voice over IP in June, followed by the Bureau of Land Management -- periodically isolated from the Internet by court orders in recent years -- in July.

The overhaul will entirely scrap the previous infrastructure and the old phones, some of which were 15 years old. It includes a voicemail upgrade, with caller ID, more mailbox space and text messaging. Employees will also have indicators on their phones to alert them of new messages, said Matthew Stewart, chief of technology at Interior’s National Business Center. Under the old system, people who didn't exit the system properly after checking messages would not get voice mail for the rest of the day, Stewart said.

He estimated that voice-over-IP systems will reduce Interior’s costs for voice services by 30 percent to 35 percent. For example, the new system will eventually eliminate long-distance charges to the business center's office in Denver, Stewart said.

A contract valued at $4.7 million over 10 years awarded to Fortran-Compel, covers equipment, installation and maintenance for headquarters and offices in the Washington, D.C.-area. The deal calls for a hybrid integrated digital voice communication system that runs digital and limited voice over IP to service 12,500 employees. Interior's headquarters will migrate to full voice over IP within the year, Stewart said, adding that individual business cases will dictate the technology's rollout to each office around the country.

"It might not make sense to deploy it to outlying areas, like the Cadastral Survey in Minnesota with two people," Stewart said.

Interior officials chose a system that will not rely on the Internet or access the Internet. An ongoing lawsuit involving Indian Trust records at the Bureau of Land Management has resulted in multiple orders to keep BLM off the Internet in the past and last month, agency officials shut down the bureau's Web site after Interior's inspector general warned that BLM's systems are vulnerable to cyberthreats.

All of Interior's voice-over-IP phones will operate on a separate local area network with no remote access. When full voice over IP arrives, the voice and data LANs will be separated by firewalls, as well as physical ones. Security will be strict, even in the local environment, officials said.

"Remote maintenance is not allowed on the voice system," said Mikki Smith, a former security officer for the National Business Center and now a department-level cybersecurity officer. "As far as locally hacking, they would have to defeat all the physical security in place."

VOIP connects IT guardians

Voice-over-IP technology helped the Education Department turn away a recent attempt to hack into its student aid system from Korea.

During the April 29 cyberattack, information technology personnel from throughout the department got together used a so-called voice-over-IP bridge, which allows parties using different network protocols, such as dial tone and voice over IP, to communicate with each other.

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 the student aid system have succeeded or hurt the department's ability to serve people, the spokesman said.

About 30 people respond to each cyberattack, and voice over IP allows them to work together no matter where they are. "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.

With voice over IP, officials can cut phones at headquarters and migrate the same services to a safer place. In February, agency officials tested an automatic phone tree with all voice-over-IP handsets, as part of its continuity of operations plan to remain functioning in the event of a serious natural disaster or terrorist attack.

Future continuity of operations plans call for giving employees the ability to use IP technology for voice and video communications in their homes during emergency situations, so they can recreate the office environment. "In a teleworking scenario, you want someone's phone ringing where they're going to be doing the work for the day," Leach said.

Education has been the most aggressive Cabinet department in adopting voice over IP, said Jim Dolezal, a lead consultant at Suss Consulting and the former chief for telecommunications services at the Interior department. "Everyone (else) is positioning themselves for [voice over IP], but they're not moving forward yet," he said. "Education is really at the lead."

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

-- Aliya Sternstein

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