May 30 2008

Video for the People

With unified communication technology, this retirement haven gets the picture.

Two years ago, when a move from a historic building to a brand-new facility presented a “greenfield” opportunity, Doña Ana County, N.M., jumped to Voice over Internet Protocol and unified communication in a single leap. The county installed a flexible, state-of-the-art network with a fiber backbone and Category 6 cabling that could easily accommodate VoIP.

Picking a new IP voice system was simple. “We were a Cisco data shop, and we figured sticking with Cisco for VoIP would make for an easy transition, plus we knew it could scale with us,” recalls Anna Peralta Hines, chief information officer for the county seat of Las Cruces. The county is attracting a growing migration of retirees with its pleasant climate and low cost of living.

Video is one of the hottest trends in UC today, and Doña Ana County is making extensive use of it. Video replays of the Board of County Commissioners meetings are now available to the public on the web, and clips of the day-long meetings can be accessed by clicking on individual agenda items.

The county is also experimenting with computer-linked video cameras in police cars. When a car moves into the coverage area of one of the city’s wireless access points, video records of arrests and other law enforcement activities are automatically uploaded. Other public-safety video applications include tele-arraignments and tele-medicine.

“If an inmate needs a psychiatric evaluation, for example, it can be conducted remotely via a video link,” says Hines. The county is planning to equip community centers with PCs and video cameras to extend a variety of such services to citizens remotely.

The new high-bandwidth backbone has led to better collaboration throughout the county, with most of the departments now using or developing UC applications. City assessors now have access to a broad range of information on the spot as they look at properties and interact with the public. The new network also supports bandwidth-hungry GIS technology, which enhances public-safety communications. GIS can be used for flood control, by pinpointing the location of callers. Similarly, GIS can alert dispatchers that callers are in a high-crime area.

Implementing VoIP and UC was a challenge, despite the IT staff’s familiarity with Cisco’s data technology. “There was definitely a learning curve,” reports Hines. “Learning the call manager and analog gateways took some time.’’ But the eventual payoff was more efficient processes for users and streamlined troubleshooting for the city’s IT staff.

Actually, IT professionals are often key beneficiaries of initial UC deployments. “Now you have all your core applications running on the same Windows server platform, using the same Active Directory,” says Henry Dewing, principal analyst for Forrester Research. “One change in an employee profile flows through all your systems and applications.”

Quantification Challenge

Typically, cost savings from UC adoption are hard to quantify. “Organizations are having a difficult time building a cost/benefit analysis for UC,” explains Irwin Lazar, an industry analyst at Nemertes Research, a market research firm based in Mokena, Ill. “It’s a lot easier in the commercial sector, where you might tie faster call-center response to increased revenue. In the government sector it’s more about cost savings, and while we’ve seen some time and productivity savings from UC, quantifiable cost savings remain elusive.”