Tech Success: Siemens dials up unique VoIP solution

Hybrid Internet switching brings new capabilities to town<@VM>Tech Success: IT solutions in action

From left, Larry Rittenberg and Jim Round of the town of Burlington, Mass., and Robin McLellan of Siemens look at some of the new equipment to handle Voice-Over-IP for the town of Burlington.

(Photo by Chee Heng Yeong)

Jim Round with Voice-Over-IP handset

Siemens Enterprise Networks found a winning strategy when it blended voice-over-Internet telephone service with standard circuit-switched equipment to provide the town of Burlington, Mass., with an 800-phone network.

As the East Coast home for information technology companies such as Oracle Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc., Burlington, 13 miles outside Boston, prides itself as a Silicon Valley of the East. So in early 2001, when the town's contract for its internal Centrex-based telephone system came up for renewal, administrators wanted to see what additional capacity could be purchased through alternate solutions.

The town already had its own fiber-optic network, installed by a cable company for the rights to provide residential services. With a population of 23,000, the town wanted to use the lines to supply not only mission-critical telephone service for its fire and emergency medical services ? which required constant uptime ? but also to numerous branch offices, some with less than five people, which would be prohibitively expensive to equip with traditional T-1 connections.

The town went with a solution offered by Siemens that provided the traditional reliability of a public branch exchange, or PBX, system for the mission-critical applications, while equipping the branch offices with Internet protocol-based phones.

"For a monthly line fee of $13 [per line], we were able to install 800 lines at half the monthly cost of Centrex for 400 lines and still get all the features we wanted," said Larry Rittenberg, assistant county administrator for Burlington.

Telecommunications industry observers predict that phones that use Internet packet-switching protocols rather than traditional circuit switches will make major inroads into the voice market, because of the reduced cost and increased range of options that IP phones offer.

However, agencies and other purchasers of telecom services have hesitated to do large-scale deployments of IP telephony. Despite recent improvements in quality of service, the voice quality of this new technology still has a reputation of the occasional jitter and echo. Plus, the technology hasn't been in operation long enough to understand its reliability over long time periods ? a distinct disadvantage when competing with the proven reliability of century-old circuit switching technology.

"IP telephony is still on the bleeding edge," said Rittenberg. "We liked the hybrid approach better. We felt much safer."

In addition to Siemens' bid, the town received proposals from Avaya Inc., Basking Ridge, N.J.; Nortel Networks Ltd., Brampton, Ontario; Mitel Networks Corp., Kanata, Ontario; Siemens; 3Com Corp., Santa Clara, Calif.; as well as a number of local providers. Siemens Enterprise Networks is a unit of Siemens Information and Communication Networks, Boca Raton, Fla., a division of Siemens AG, Munich, Germany.

"What drew me technically to Siemens was its unique solution of marrying voice over IP with its own switch," Rittenberg said. "A lot of other companies wanted to set up T-1s."

The company employed 12 Siemens HG3800 shelves to connect the remote locations to switches over the fiber network. For smaller locations, the company used its voice-over-IP product line.

"At the core, it has a traditional circuit-switched technology," said Robin McLellan, account manager for Siemens who headed the Burlington bid. "For the smaller locations that weren't as mission critical, we wanted to take advantage of whatever infrastructure we could, so IP was a good fit."

The installation costs ran approximately $900,000. Compared with the renewal cost of the Centrex system, the investment would pay itself back within two years, said Jim Round, director of information systems for the town.

In addition to the 400 lines the contract originally called for, the company was able to piggyback an additional 400 phone lines to the local school system so that each classroom could have its own phone and voice-mail box.

"That was something we couldn't even consider using a Centrex system," Rittenberg said.
The Internet protocol also was able to provide some features not found in the Centrex system, such as a caller ID system that can identify the building the user is calling from. It also provided for an internal voice e-mail system.

The approach of using voice-over-IP elements as a "value add" to traditional switching systems is one that is working for Siemens' federal unit as well, said Russell Brodsky, sales manager for the office.

The company has been doing installations under the Army's Digital Switched Systems Modernization Program, in which it has completed a number of voice-over-IP-enhanced base installations, such as Fort Knox, Ky., and Rock Island Arsenal, Ill.

Towns around Burlington have shown interest in the network as well.

"We've had other communities from the Boston area come and visit us. They heard through the grapevine what we have done," Rittenberg said.

If you have an innovative solution that you recently installed in a government agency, contact Staff Writer Joab Jackson at
Project: Internal phone system

Municipality: Burlington, Mass.

Integrator: Siemens Enterprise NetworksGoal

Goal: Burlington wanted to replace its telephone system with one that reduced costs and connected more branch offices to an internal telephone network.

Obstacles: Traditional leased telephony solutions are expensive, and emergency medical services demand a high level of service.

Solution: Siemens blended voice-over-IP equipment with traditional telephone switching equipment to offer a system that promises to mix high reliability and low cost.

Payoff: Siemens installed twice as many phone lines at half the cost of the previous system.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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