A Slow Start, But Expect a Growing Market<@VM>Agencies Take Stab at It<@VM>Looking Ahead
By Jennifer Freer
A woman sits at her desk in her home, staring at her computer, attempting to fill out the online forms necessary to get her Social Security benefits.
Stumped by a question, she picks up the phone and dials the number she sees on her computer screen. She hears a voice on the other end. The man, working for the Social Security Administration, also has her form on his screen.
Together, they work through the document, and soon the form is complete and received electronically at the Social Security office. All the correct information has been processed.
This is the future of voice/data convergence as government agencies and industry see it. Talking on the phone and looking at the same data at the same time, all on one network is the vision of what is known as voice/data convergence telecommunications.
"In the future, as we move more to delivering services electronically, we will be able to simultaneously have a dialog with a customer and see what the customer is seeing in order to better serve them," said John Dyer, executive director to the deputy commissioner and chief information officer for the Social Security Administration.
Although the market is still fairly small, it continues to grow, creating tremendous opportunities for government agencies, companies and citizens, industry officials said.
"Government is an early adopter compared to other market segments, and I think it's because government purchases seem to be done in a much more organized manner where there's a series of steps," said Pete Dailey, an analyst with the market research firm Forrester Research Inc. of Cambridge, Mass.
The federal market for converged telecommunications solutions will grow to $1.6 billion by 2009, expanding from just $29 million in 2000, according to a report issued this month by Federal Sources Inc., a provider of information technology research and consulting services in McLean, Va.
The study, "Convergence: Telecommunications in the Federal Government," concluded that cost benefits derived from convergence in conjunction with the evolving e-government initiatives will drive a steady increase in convergence implementation among federal agencies.
Federal agencies have a mandate under the Government Paperwork Elimination Act of 1998 to do more work electronically. To comply, agencies have to improve their telecommunications infrastructure to support digital government, the report said. Through the use of technologies such as voice over Internet protocol and multimedia, federal agencies can make government more effective and efficient, according to the Federal Sources report.
Voice/data convergence is voice and data together on the same network. The phone network and computer network become the same network, said Zia Fatemi, federal agency manager for Alcatel, a Paris-based supplier of telecom equipment and services.
One of the first applications agencies want is gathering e-mail, voice mail and faxes in one location and having one telephone number for all three types of communication.
How does voice/data convergence differ from voice over Internet Protocol? Voice over IP converts voice to IP packets and sends them across a network with other data packets, Fatemi said. For example, a conference call on the Internet is voice over IP, and it is one way to achieve voice/data convergence.
Voice over IP is one of the more popular enabling technologies that allows voice/data convergence to take place, said David Kelly, director of consulting for Federal Sources. But voice/data convergence is much more sensitive to delays and bandwidth constraints, he added.
As all forms of government move to a world of electronic transactions, voice/data convergence will become even more crucial to future applications and daily operations of government. Convergence is what will move e-government forward, helping to process transactions quicker and saving agencies money in a time of budget constraints, industry experts said.
While demand for voice/data convergence technologies is growing, government agencies are moving on their own to explore the new technology. It's so new, in fact, there aren't government contracts specifically for voice/data convergence.
"There's not one program you can point to," Kelly said.
Solutions can be put together through contract vehicles such as the General Services Administration's FTS2001 or the Navy's Voice Video and Data Communications (Vivid) contract.
But the lack of contracts has not stopped some agencies from diving into voice/data convergence while keeping pace with the commercial market, Kelly said.
The Social Security Administration is looking into voice/data convergence but has not started using any solutions yet, Dyer said.
"We have expanded our frame relay network and infrastructure," Dyer said. "We expect to see it used in the next couple of years at the most. We are working on Internet applications and see voice/data convergence as a logical step after that."
It's not a step without some complexities. Agencies need to have the bandwidth, and many are beginning to work on that problem, Dyer said. Increasing bandwidth takes money, a challenge for all agencies, he said.
Other complexities include reliability, quality of service, determining if the timing is right for an agency and making network upgrades.
"When you open this door, the kind of demands you get can be overwhelming," Dyer said. "You have to be sure the agency can handle it."
Agency officials said cost savings are a key reason to explore voice/data convergence.
Dyer said it has the potential to be much more cost effective, not only for government but for citizens, too. The information from electronic forms comes in quicker and without errors. The forms are moved electronically quicker and easier, which saves money. Plus it decreases citizens traveling to an agency's office.
A military base began its search for a voice/data convergence solution three years ago as way to save money. Mildenhall, a U.S. Air Force base 80 miles outside of London, was looking for a way to shift voice traffic over a fiber-optic data system, said Michael O'Rourke, chief of command and control commercial communications and architecture for Mildenhall.
The base was paying high rates for every phone call, even if the person was nearby. The U.S. government was paying almost $1 million a year to rent the telephone lines, O'Rourke said. The base wanted to reduce its dependence on the local telephone company, British Telecom. Voice/data convergence allows Mildenhall to own its own fiber and infrastructure, he said.
One obstacle for Mildenhall was one other agencies have come up against: making use of existing equipment in which the government already has heavily invested.
O'Rourke was ready to buy new Cisco Systems Inc. equipment and voice/data convergence solutions, but the base had a $12 million telephone switch it wanted to keep.
Nortel Networks Corp., a manufacturer of Internet and communications products in Brampton, Ontario, was able to make the existing switch IP ready and save Mildenhall money, said Mara Foulois, strategic account manager for Nortel.
"For government agencies, there is the idea of investment protection," Foulois said. "Customers are looking to migrate and evolve."
Foulois said agencies are looking at voice/data convergence on a case-by-case basis, because if the telephone systems are working and the data network is doing everything they need, then there is little point in migrating.
Cost savings are not the only benefit of voice/data convergence. When networks are converged, the network is re-engineered, Kelly said. When a voice network and data network are brought together, there are efficiencies such as extra capacity. Each network has extra capacity, and by converging them, the excess capacity becomes available.
Voice/data convergence also allows for one backbone network, which means the agency must manage only one network, not two, Kelly said.
Voice/data convergence cannot be achieved without some major industry players helping government along the way.
"Agencies are waiting for the products and services to mature, so that the reality lives up to the expectations," said John Eidsness, manager of network performance solutions for Verizon Federal, a division of telecommunications company Verizon Communications Inc., New York.
Government agencies are looking for voice/data convergence to provide cost savings, the ability to manage a single network and increased reliability, said Michael Rau, director of systems engineering for Cisco Systems Inc.'s Federal Sales.
With converged networks, call-center applications can be used, he said, such as two people looking at the same Web page and talking at the same time. Cisco, a telecom equipment manufacturer based in San Jose, Calif., also offers unified messaging, a technology that allows the user to merge e-mail, voice mail and faxes in one box. It gives a user one place to go for communication and is more productive, Rau said.
Agencies are starting to dabble in voice/data convergence this year, said Alcatel's Fatemi. By 2001, the agencies will start deploying voice/data convergence on a larger scale.
Alcatel is expecting orders by the end of October for voice/data convergence solutions from Veterans Affairs and the Army, said Fatemi, who declined to discuss details.
"If government has to upgrade the voice switches, then they should look to get a platform that can support voice/data convergence down the road," Fatemi said.The driving factors of the voice/data convergence market are applications such as voice mail, video mail, videoconferencing, e-government initiatives and legislative mandates. Despite the increasing push for this technology, there are still some obstacles slowing down the implementation of voice/data convergence solutions.
Forrester's Dailey said in order for voice/data convergence to take off in the government, legacy computer systems must be upgraded and replaced ? a huge investment for many agencies.
As long as the government can see cost savings in the future associated with the upgrades and replacements, voice/data convergence equipment purchases will continue to grow, he said.
"Government requirements are very strict, but we will see more purchases going forward," Dailey said.
It's easier to get budget allocations for a major purchase if it's going to save money in the long run, and voice/data convergence products tend to do that by reducing long-distance data communication charges, he added.
Voice/data convergence is much more sensitive to delays and bandwidth constraints, Kelly said. The network must be able to handle an increased amount of information with voice/data convergence and many times the bogged down networks cause delays in sending and receiving information, he said.
The quality of service and the ability to manage voice and data on one network are the two larger challenges, he said. If there are existing problems with the voice network, then there will be problems when the voice and data networks are brought together.
Ultimately, agencies need to consolidate more bandwidth, which takes time and money, Kelly said. "It's slowing down implementation of voice/data convergence," he said.
There is a financial investment involved in moving to voice/data convergence and upgrading the complicated government networks. Government agencies are interested in voice/data convergence, but the financial issue is slowing them down, he said.In the future, agencies expect to see more uses of voice/data convergence in multimedia applications: videoconferencing, closed circuit television, training and IP telephones. An IP telephone is a big part of voice/data convergence, especially in the government arena, many industry players said.
An IP phone is a telephone that connects to an IP line like a computer on the local area network. When a call is made, it automatically gets converted to an IP packet. Unlike a digital phone, there is no programming that goes with an IP phone. It works instantly when it's plugged into the wall.
Customers are asking for an application to replace Centrix service, a service where agencies pay a monthly fee for phones and long distance charges. The old Centrix system can be replaced with IP telephony, which has no long distance charges, Rau said.
"The phone isn't looked at as a phone in the future, but as a network appliance," Rau said. And it will become more than just a phone. "It has the ability to run data, voice and video applications in the future and allows you to do Web browsing from the phone," he said.
One problem is that IP telephony relies on the local network as the transport
system and is still not reliable. If the network goes down, the phone would go down, too. Therefore, many customers are leery of running all IP phones, Fatemi said.
Some agencies, such as the Defense Department, have made telecom switches on which they have spent millions of dollars to upgrade and make Y2K compliant, Fatemi said. So new technology such as voice/data convergence might not be cost effective to immediately implement within the next year or two, he said. With voice/data convergence, more is necessary: more equipment, more upgrades, and more money, he said.
Fatemi also sees voice/data convergence taking off more rapidly with civilian agencies. These agencies have scattered in different offices around the country switches that were purchased at different times, Fatemi said. Ten percent of the switches are getting upgraded every year because they are already obsolete.
"I see civilian agencies implementing voice/data convergence faster, because they can justify the cost much faster," he said. "The risk factor is smaller since they are upgrading a building instead of a whole base."