The saying goes that lightning never strikes the same place twice, but Alex Wages, IT director for the city of Winder, Ga., has found that not to be true.
"We had one location prone to lightning strikes," he says, recalling one expensive summer during which he had to replace PRI cards in the city's aging Nortel PBXes three times. Each card, rendered useless by a bolt from the blue, ran about $4,000.
Between that fluke and cumbersome PBX management (including a time-consuming process for adds, moves and changes that Wages says consumed nearly one-third of his work hours), a phone system upgrade was at the top of his must-have list.
So in 2008, when Winder's city council voted to earmark funding for several citywide infrastructure improvement projects, including an IP telephony deployment, Wages was delighted. Just three years earlier, the then-mayor had nixed such a project because of an estimated price tag of $330,000. Yet the subsequent drop in the cost of Voice over IP systems gave the city's elected officials the impetus to go forward. Wages received approval to replace the Nortel system with 125 Cisco Systems phones, switches and Cisco Call Manager software, to the tune of about $280,000.
In consultation with CDW's Advanced ÂTechnology Services group, Wages and his team plotted a four-step plan for implementing the Cisco system. First, a network evaluation was conducted to smoke out everything from insufficient power sources to dormant circuits. The next step was to implement necessary changes, and the third was to deploy Call Manager in a test environment. Finally, the actual phones were placed on users' desks and the systems were turned on.
These days, Winder handles adds, moves and changes with a few keystrokes, and lightning strikes aren't nearly as costly as they used to be.
Wages and IT leaders from state and local governments share their advice about upgrading their legacy phone systems:
1 Begin with a telecom audit.
"Take the opportunity to research your communications network," says Zeus Kerravala, senior vice president of research at Yankee Group.
Kerravala says one of his city government clients uncovered numerous dormant circuits from such an audit -- circuits that were being paid for but not used. By uncovering waste, consolidating trunks and making other changes, this client recouped the costs of the move to VoIP in about six months.
From an audit, you'll also learn a lot about your organization's calling patterns. "You need to know what kind of tariffs you're paying; how much long-distance versus local calling your users are doing," he says. This information will help you make better use of VoIP software's reporting capabilities and assist with accurate chargebacks.
Turning voice into a data centerâ€“delivered application can drive savings, but the potential for savings is even greater if a comprehensive audit is conducted by a single entity, not multiple ones, Kerravala points out.
2 Look for ways to consolidate.
Ann Roland, IT manager at the ÂSacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency in California, ticks off a list of cost savings her organization realized from the move to Shoretel IP phones in early 2010.
"We were able to disconnect about 250 Centrex lines and 1 megabyte lines as well as some user and fax lines to PRI circuits that support Direct Inward Dialing," she says. Other circuits were rendered obsolete by Shoretel's auto-attendant and workgroup features. Such consolidation shaves more than $80,000 off SHRA's annual IT budget, Roland estimates.
3 Conduct a phased deployment.
"If you have a large number of locations and users, it is better to roll the conversion out in phases rather than do a wholesale cutover," says Jack Taylor, the IT network and security manager for the Ohio Department of Transportation. "It is fairly easy to have the legacy system and the VoIP solution running in parallel."
Users working for the city of Winder, for example, had two phones running side by side on their desks for two weeks. When the full cutover happened, "we had a few hiccups [related to] call routing, but there were no issues from the telco," says Wages.
4 Anticipate a spike in power consumption.
Winder hired CDW's Advanced Technology Services arm to assess the network and ensure that Power over Ethernet switching capability was up to snuff for the new power demands the IP switches would place on the network, Wages says. The energy surge comes not only from the switches themselves but from the additional cooling they require, Kerravala notes.
The year that the Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU-T) developed the H.323 standard, the earliest set of guidelines for the transmission of
Voice over IP networks
5 Consider a hybrid model.
Mike Scaffidi, telecommunications Âdirector for the city of Martinsville, Va., just 10 miles north of the North Carolina border, is required to support a range of users -- not all of whom want to go the VoIP route now. As a result, ÂScaffidi and his team of four full-time and three part-time staff are charged with managing analog and digital lines as well as a full IP telephony system from Avaya, with a few Nortel switches still in the mix.
The few users clinging to analog want fax lines, he explains, adding that IP faxing software is too expensive for his budget. It's also not affordable to transport analog over fiber-optic cables, so for the time being, the analog lines will stay.
"I'm an old-school kind of a guy, so I wanted to make sure we had digital as well as IP telephony," Scaffidi says of the period when first-generation VoIP's early issues with latency were ironed out. But now, IP telephony is becoming just as familiar to his organization's workers as the digital solutions to which they were accustomed.
The Devil's in the Details
IT managers may be surprised by the granular view of their agency's data and voice communications costs that IP telephony affords them.
"There are a lot of different [phone] bills" you'll uncover in the pre-install audit, says Mike Scaffidi, telecommunications director for Martinsville, Va. -- and you may be in for a shock. Martinsville's assessment revealed that $365,000 was being spent annually on voice communications.
In a time of ever fewer dollars in city and county coffers, VoIP products generally make more accurate chargeback possible. "I can run a report and note that this department made that many calls," says Alex Wages, IT director for the city of Winder, Ga. "We used to do it based on the number of employees in the department."
Among other things, Cisco Call Manager "is a performance-measuring tool for us," says Wages. Most IP telephony management systems make it possible to see exactly how much time employees are spending online or on the phone and with whom. Staff whose performance is not up to expectations "sometimes don't realize how they are spending their day," he adds. A printed report is often the thing to nudge them back to greater productivity.