VoIP goes mainstream

Kevin Mitchell uses the Web-based soft phone to place a call at the VoIP Center.

Rick Steele

Fostering collaboration among its scientists, researchers and other employees is one of the biggest goals of the Food and Drug Administration's fledgling campus on the outskirts of the nation's capital.

In choosing a phone system for the White Oak, Md., site that one day will grow to house about 18 buildings, the choice was clear: The new system would be voice over Internet protocol.

"We want to make sure that any technologies we bring onto the campus would enhance the collaborative nature of the campus itself," said Glenn Rogers, the FDA's deputy CIO. "One reason we are consolidating at White Oak is to bring the scientists and our user community closer together. We want to make sure that the technology was in place to help foster that."

Because of its capacity to support collaboration, among other features, VoIP is increasingly the top choice when organizations decide what kind of network to build for voice traffic, experts said.

"VoIP is mainstream now. We're not trying to cross a chasm, so to speak, anymore," said Patrick Lugenbeel, a major account manager with Cisco Systems Inc.'s federal business.

"All the vendors spend their research and development money on VoIP," Lugenbeel said. "No one spends it on traditional voice anymore. VoIP is definitely going to be the technology of the future."

Cisco and prime contractor Verizon Communications Inc. of New York is building out FDA's VoIP system at White Oak.

Taher Bouzayen, a senior analyst at Boston research firm Yankee Group Inc., agrees that VoIP is quickly becoming the preferred technology for phones as well as for video and data. But it has not totally supplanted other technologies, he said.

"VoIP is the most advertised technology right now. It's cost effective and [the vendors] have cleared most of the regulatory problems around it," Bouzayen said.

Although some organizations continue to choose more conventional options, he said,"VoIP is starting to become a by-default solution."

FDA's White Oak campus buildout began about two years ago and is scheduled for completion in 2010. Fewer than 2,000 FDA employees are on the campus, but that number is expected to rise to about 8,000 when the project is complete.

Employees are dispersed among eight centers, including the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research and the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. With an agency that size, reorganizations are common, FDA's Rogers said. VoIP makes those moves easier and cheaper.

"We looked at the cost of moving a user from one office to another under the old system, and having to contact the phone companies and make the switch on the telephone line," he said. "VoIP affords us the portability that when a user moves, they just carry their phone with them and plug into the network. Their settings for the phone are still there, their call list is still there."

The portability of VoIP includes the use of soft phones on PCs. Soft-phone software emulates a phone handset on a computer and lets users take their phone numbers with them and plug in wherever there is a high-speed Internet connection. The soft phone can be set to ring when the user's office phone rings.

"That is going to help a lot of our work-at-home users," Rogers said. "We have a lot of drug reviewers who work from home three to four days a week, and they can extend their offices even further by using the soft-phone feature."

That kind of flexibility contributes to VoIP's collaborative capabilities, Cisco's Lugenbeel said. Usually, organizations have separate, dedicated networks for different uses, such as voice, data and video. VoIP combines those, opening opportunities for collaboration.

"In this case, you have FDA, which is a scientific and regulatory agency with a staff of scientists, researchers, doctors and others," Lugenbeel said. "The folks who are local are moving to this campus of several buildings, and this technology will let them collaborate more easily through simple desktop videoconferencing that is done as easily as making a phone call."

The unified network also will make it easier to collaborate on documents or scientific research images.
To collaborate via a typical system with independent networks, a voice call first would have to be established. If videoconferencing was needed, participants would have to move to a conference room where it was set up. If they wanted to work on a document together, they either would have to bring a laptop to the conference room or end the video session and go back to their PCs.

"With the technology they're putting in at White Oak, they'll be able to do all that right at their desk as easily as making a phone call," Cisco's Lugenbeel said. "Using the collaboration application, the person running the conference could bring up a document or an image that the members of the meeting also would be able to access and view."

Because VoIP is also an architecture, development and integration of applications will continue into the foreseeable future, the Yankee Group's Bouzayen said.

"When VoIP service providers go talk to government entities, they're no longer just saying we'll provide you with VoIP. They go beyond that and provide them with a solution," Bouzayen said. "The providers will mention, 'By the way, we know that you have X and Y applications, and the performance of this application is not at all impacted by the deployment of VoIP. To the contrary, it can even be enhanced.' "

Staff Writer Doug Beizer can be reached at dbeizer@postnewsweektech.com.

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Washington Technology.

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