The city of Stevens Point, Wis., iced obsolete phones with a unified communications deployment, says Joel Lemke.

Phone Check

Unified Communications delivers a hat trick of cost savings, improved productivity and enhanced collaboration.

As state and local governments around the country deal with outdated phone systems, they're discovering that improved voice service is but one of the many gains to be had by tossing out the old and thinking beyond a basic call.

IT leaders are ditching their aging PBX or Centrex systems and moving to IP-based, unified communications (UC) platforms that answer their voice needs, and then some. UC systems, available from companies such as 3Com, Avaya, Cisco Systems and ShoreTel, allow organizations to converge voice, data, video and other real- and non-real-time communication services into new, improved user experiences across a unified architecture.

"What unified communications does is streamline the amount of time needed to switch between communications mediums," says Zeus Kerravala, distinguished research fellow with Yankee Group. "In some cases, depending on an employee's role, but especially for people who work out of the office, that can mean several hours a day saved."

Voice over IP, or IP telephony, while often the starting point for these projects, is hardly the endgame, government IT executives say.

As Joel Lemke, public works director for the city of Stevens Point, Wis., says, "UC is about all those user-friendly features that people grab onto, not even realizing why they are possible and what it took to get them there. They're just happy for the functionality."

In Stevens Point, that functionality includes an automated call attendant that redirects 75 percent of incoming calls on a city information line; or, when used by the Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department, allows for automated events notification. Additionally, the city's UC system allows users to receive voicemails in their e-mail inboxes for easier viewing and management and supports a variety of other productivity enhancers, Lemke says.

UC and a Fiber Backbone

Stevens Point is a relative UC newbie, having finished its implementation in mid-December 2009, Lemke says. Like many state and local governments, the city was driven toward UC as it studied its options for replacing a legacy Centrex system that was approaching its end of life. The system wasn't necessarily failing, Lemke says, but finding replacement parts was difficult, and functionality was limited compared with what a new UC system could offer. For example, the city needed to provide phone and Internet access at each of its nine disparate facilities, but it wasn't able to do so in a centralized or unified way, he says.

25% The increase in organizational competitiveness noted by best-of-class participants in a survey of 154 IT executives with unified communications platforms
Source: Aberdeen Group

The city solved its challenges in one big project that included stringing 36,000 feet of fiber-optic cable to each city building and running IP voice atop that new data infrastructure. As outlined in Lemke's project road map, combining a new fiber backbone with the UC implementation would benefit the city in myriad ways. These include streamlined phone and Internet costs; enhanced staff productivity; easier adds, moves and changes of phones and workstations; timely, regular and central data backups; and more.

The city invested slightly more than $800,000 in this project, with roughly half of that amount going toward construction of the fiber backbone, Lemke says. The city expects a favorable return on investment on the system, he adds.

Except for InformaCast paging software and the HP servers on which these applications run, the city is using Cisco Layer 2 and 3 networking equipment and UC products end to end, Lemke says. The UC piece includes the Cisco Call Manager UC platform plus Cisco Unity Voice Mail and approximately 150 IP phones.

"My favorite part of all of this is that we're unlimited in the things we can do leveraging this system. The consistency also is wonderful, knowing that whether you're at the ice arena or Water and Waste Water Department, you'll have the same capabilities," Lemke says. "Plus, we know we're not locked into this point-in-time snapshot of when we deployed our UC. We can grow into the future."

Other local and state governments share similar stories of cost savings, increased staff productivity and streamlined processes.

In Maine, the Portland Water District has gradually boosted business processes and improved worker productivity by rolling out new functions on the ShoreTel UC platform it implemented four years ago to replace an outdated phone system, says Chad Davis, IS manager at this quasi-municipality, which serves 11 communities in southern Maine. The water district uses ShoreTel's base system (which includes the ShoreWare Personal Call Manager, plus the ShoreWare Enterprise Contact Center) with advanced routing and interactive voice response (IVR).

In one example of how the water district benefits from UC, the ShoreTel system helps capture project information, Davis says. Using Personal Call Manager, the district can save voicemails as .wav files and store those with project files. "If a contractor calls us and says, ‘We're going to use three-quarter-inch pipe,' and that doesn't happen, we can open and replay the saved voicemail," he explains. "This has been a valuable feature to have available to us in several instances."

App Integration Ahead

In central Maryland, the Howard County government is busy looking for ways to move beyond the basics as it nears the end of a planned three-year UC implementation that, once complete, will provide services such as VoIP and unified messaging to 3,500 employees. It is now time to move on to deeper application integration, says Ira Levy, director of technology and communications services for the county.

72% The percentage of more than 3,600 participants in a global survey that reported improved operational performance after deploying collaboration tools, including UC platforms
Source: Frost & Sullivan

For example, the county has begun exploring how to tie together its Cisco IP telephony system and various Microsoft desktop applications. "We want to bring together desktop conferencing and the voice services and really dive into a collaborative workspace," Levy says.

By doing so, a county employee working in a Microsoft Office SharePoint portal would be able to see, via presence technology, which team members are available to take calls. Still within SharePoint, the user would be able to click to place the voice call, which the user would receive on his or her desk, cell or home phone depending on where he or she happens to be at the time.
Howard County also is pilot testing Cisco and Microsoft presence technologies, trying to determine which best suits user needs and whether extending beyond a select group of users would be a worthwhile investment, Levy says.

"Whether you're with the government or not, a big challenge is figuring out how to really bring together the desktop computer and the phone system and backend network," he adds. "So we're taking this one step at a time to see how we can bring these worlds together and to determine through real needs analysis where we might see efficiencies by doing so."

Organizations do need to think about presence carefully, agrees Yankee Group's Kerravala. "The ability to understand the state of a user or piece of equipment can trigger a lot of automated communications processes," he says.

It's all about reaping more reward from the UC investment, which in Howard County's case already has saved more than $400,000 annually in line costs alone, Levy says. Before implementing the UC system, Howard County relied on Centrex service, to the tune of about $20 per line for each of the organization's 3,500 individual phone users. "We had to have a one-to-one ratio, so one line per person. Plus, we had a measured rate, so the more users talked, the more we paid," he says.

Find out how a new unified communications system in Charlotte County, Fla., should pay for itself within six years at statetechmag.com/UC/0110.

With the UC system, the county has eliminated thousands of phone lines. Instead it runs ISDN Primary Rate Interface (PRI) lines and uses Session Initiation Protocol trunking to serve users, he says. Under the Centrex system, the county paid about $660,000 monthly for voice service. Now it pays about $200,000.

Streamlined Support

The city of Mission Viejo, Calif., has also reaped substantial savings by eliminating phone lines with its UC platform, says A. Jackie Alexander, director of information technology for the city. As an example, she points to the library -- one of nine sites on Mission Viejo's UC network -- where the city has saved 80 percent on voice costs in the last year by eliminating more than 100 direct dial-in lines. Instead, it can bring voice connections into two PRI lines provided from its data center at city hall, she says.

"We're always looking for ways to cut costs, and we knew by implementing VoIP we could streamline some of the phone lines coming into the different facilities and leverage that system to do some cost cutting," says Alexander of one of the city's UC drivers.

In addition, UC would provide the opportunity to use features, such as unified messaging, that are not available on the city's outdated phone system. Plus, she adds, it would drastically improve the city's add, move and change process.

Because the current IT staff wasn't well-versed in the previous phone system's technology, the city relied on an external firm to perform maintenance and adds, moves and changes, Alexander says. "We'd pool requests and wait to bring in the third-party vendor to come onsite to make those simple changes," she describes. "Now we can do those easily, and users no longer have to wait for service. We're talking minutes to hours versus days to weeks."

As Kerravala says, "The best thing about unified communications is its ability to streamline processes by removing human latency."

Improving UC

In an Aberdeen Research report issued last fall, senior research analyst Andrew Borg outlined three next-step action items for organizations that want to take their unified communications (UC) implementations from good to great.

1. Treat mobile devices as if they were desktop phones, allowing call transfers to and from these devices and the office phone. Features such as call forwarding, internal call transfer, find-me/follow-me and single number simultaneous ring promise not only to improve accessibility but also to increase worker productivity.

2. Treat the UC infrastructure as mission critical. Ensure appropriate staffing levels for centralized management and employee training, and consider outsourcing UC support if resources are constrained.

3. Implement stringent controls and policies to ensure use without abuse.

Outside Expertise

Managed services for unified communications are on an upswing, picking up momentum as organizations look for ways to deal with the increasing complexity of their UC environments while contending with reduced IT budgets, experts say.

In a recently published key trends report on managed and hosted communications, Nemertes Research notes that many organizations that implemented Voice over IP in 2008 and 2009 will turn this year to managed VoIP services as they look for ways to offset the management burden.

With the increasing interest in and availability of managed UC services, Nemertes provides three recommendations for IT executives:

· Evaluate managed and hosted services for all or some of the company's UC applications.

· Assess your needs and look for one or more providers that give you the right blend of services.

· Consider these factors when selecting a provider: breadth of services, geographical reach, security policies, service-level agreement metrics, and certifications and training.

James Schnepf
Apr 16 2010