Analysts: Agencies should embrace VoIP

Despite legitimate security concerns, federal agencies should pursue voice over IP technology because it will revolutionize how the government communicates, and reduce costs as well, according to several government and industry analysts.

Speaking at a conference last week sponsored by the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va., panelists said several agencies are embracing VOIP, and the technology will become integral to government operations once security and other concerns are resolved.

"It is clear that VOIP can now compete more readily and on an equal footing with traditional telecommunication services" for the government, said Alan Balutis, president and CEO of government strategies at market research firm Input Inc. of Reston, Va.

Panelists estimated that the government can save as much as $10 billion a year by switching to VOIP, because the technology gives users better control over their phone lines and lets them change and add users almost instantaneously through an online portal.

Balutis said his firm is tracking 20 VOIP business opportunities within the government, including proposals at the Defense, Homeland Security, Treasury, Veterans Affairs and Interior departments, and the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA and the General Services Administration.

David Jarrell, director of the Center for Information Infrastructure within GSA's Federal Technology Service, said VOIP is a major component of GSA's massive $20 billion Networx telecommunications procurement.

Although security issues such as denial-of-service attacks and invasion of privacy need to be resolved before VOIP can be implemented on a mass scale throughout the government, Jarrell and others said the benefits of the technology are too big to ignore.

For example, Jarrell and Robert Leach, director of IT Services at the Education Department, said VOIP could play a dual role in helping the government respond to a national emergency and also promote the growth of teleworking.

Jarrell referred to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and on the Pentagon, noting that in those kinds of situations, offices could be inaccessible but employees will still need to communicate.

"There has to be a full suite of options in the event that we had to operate from this room we're in right now," Jarrell said.

Leach said the simple features of a VOIP phone could let government workers communicate in geographically dispersed locations. If there is an emergency, "I can immediately shift hundreds of workers to their homes," Leach said. "It's as simple as, when you leave your desk, unplug your phone and take it with you."

However, he conceded that "the security isn't there for that yet."

In particular, Leach said that establishing security and firewall protocols that would let entire departments and organizations work from home at the same time is not feasible at the moment. "But it'll get there," he said.

Industry panelists said security concerns over VOIP are certainly valid but can be easily addressed.

"From my experience in dealing with businesses, [the security issues] seem to be somewhat overhyped," said Jake Heinz, a vice president for VOIP service provider Covad Communications Corp. of San Jose, Calif. "People aren't as worried about it as you'd suspect."

Heinz said providers are well aware of the security risks and are generally able to resolve concerns quickly. "There are things a provider has to do to secure the network," he said. "Appropriate teams focused on risks [assigned by the provider] can mitigate concerns."

Rob Thormeyer is a staff writer for Washington Technology's sister publication, Government Computer News.

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