Alaska Breaks New Ground

Comprehensive telecom partnership overcomes organizational and geographic obstacles.

by / December 20, 2002
Larry Walsh, Alaska's chief technology officer, is leading what may be the most comprehensive enterprise telecom project in the nation. Over the course of five years, Alaska will invest $92 million to bring new communication services to the state's handful of cities and scores of remote villages, accessible only by plane, boat or off-road vehicle.

A land of legendary natural beauty, a hub of international trade and a strategic military site, Alaska has developed a series of innovative technology applications to serve its 600,000-plus widely disbursed residents. The telecom project, which will outsource a range of services formerly operated in-house, continues that trend.

The project includes the distribution of about 20,000 digital phones and a statewide calling plan for public employees that will eliminate most long-distance charges. It also will implement a converged voice, video and data network; improved mobile communications and satellite technologies; a statewide dial-up service; and enhanced video-conferencing capabilities. Bandwidth will be expanded, and the state's system of 231 satellite earth stations will be upgraded to deliver emergency communications and media broadcast services.

These new enterprise services will be used by all of Alaska's executive branch agencies and numerous other state organizations, representing a dramatic break from past policies.

Historically, Alaska's telecom infrastructure has faced problems with interoperability, siloed-systems and redundant equipment. The state had neither an accurate inventory of telecom assets nor the ability to manage related expenditures.

Private-Sector Partner
Walsh said involving the private sector was critical for improving the state's telecom performance. "We recognized that with a lot of contracts coming up at one time, the state could think outside the box," he said. Consequently, Alaska released an RFP in 2000 inviting telecom companies to be creative in designing a statewide system to address the need for multiple communications tools.

In December 2001, Alaska Communications System (ACS) was awarded the contract and became the state's private-sector partner in the ambitious project. "We liked ACS because they stressed ownership and a willingness to work with the state to put together an organization to deliver the services," Walsh said, adding that to fulfill the requirements of the contract, the company had to re-engineer its internal culture. "They had to take a different approach. They couldn't think of themselves as a telco. They had to think of themselves as a service organization."

This required a change of perception, according to Jeff Tyson, vice president of ACS. "We have made a lot of effort to align ourselves to the customer view of services rather than the carrier's," he said. "We are a traditional phone company, and we are trying to strike a balance. There are cultural shifts that are necessary for both of us."

ACS came to the project with an established relationship with state government. "It is not that unusual in Alaska to have a pretty good mix of commercial and government customers, because the state and federal governments have a prominent place in our economy," Tyson said.

But the new contract altered the traditional customer-vendor relationship. Under the agreement, state employees displaced by the project had the option of taking jobs with ACS or remaining with the state. Consequently, ACS hired 26 state employees who will work on the telecom project. "It is a management challenge," Tyson added. "How do you build a singular sense of purpose when you are working across the boundaries?"

Despite the difficulties, the telecom contract should generate long-term benefits for both the state and ACS, according to Walsh. ACS committed to investing $29 million to build new infrastructure and launch new services. The company will then leverage that investment by offering the services commercially. "What they proposed was the convergence of voice, video and data on this backbone that they are building for the state," Walsh said. "They will then offer the services to other customers. The state serves as an anchor tenant."

The arrangement delivers services to Alaska residents that were previously unavailable, Tyson said. "It brings a new level of advanced technology to the state that probably wouldn't have happened as soon. Smaller communities will see the benefits," he said. "In a pure, natural market process, there wouldn't have been sufficient incentive to build out these markets. The state is the stimulus for capital investment."

Setting Standards
The enterprise-wide project is intended to make telecom systems interoperable among state agencies and institute standards that were previously absent. Adjusting to the new plan has been challenging, but the results should be worth the growing pains, Walsh said. "Our models show us that the state could save over $14 million over five years, and at the same time, enjoy a capital investment of over $29 million from the vendor. It should really leap frog our telecom technology and our understanding of the enterprise environment."

A converged telephony network is an element of the project, and ACS turned to Cisco to implement IP telephony technology. Terry Dickinson, Cisco's Anchorage account manager, said the system puts Alaska on the cutting edge of this relatively new technology. Initially, there was debate about IP telephony being mature enough to roll out in such a major project. "Cisco is convinced. We are using it, and we know it works," Dickinson said. "We were instrumental in helping the state and ACS understand that the technology is, indeed, ready. It was pretty aggressive and on the leading edge for the state of Alaska to do it."

Indeed, Alaska will draw a wide audience as the innovative project progresses, said Brenda Decker, director of the Nebraska Division of Communications and former president of the Association for Telecommunications and Technology Professionals Serving State Government. "This is probably the first state we are seeing that is truly what everyone talks about as a converged network," she said. "If it succeeds, it can only lead to more states moving the same way. Everyone is watching."

The sheer size of the project, coupled with Alaska's harsh weather, rural nature and environmental sensitivities complicate the effort, added Decker. "There are some huge things that other states don't have. If you can do it in Alaska, you can do it anywhere."

Growing Importance
Alaska's landmark project may reflect growing awareness of telecom's importance. "What we have seen in the last year, after 9-11, is that communication is no longer a commodity of government," Decker said. "It is one of the foundations of how government operates. We are seeing telecom move to the forefront."

The new services will be used by Alaska's 13 executive-branch agencies, according to project director Stan Herrera. The project also includes voluntary participation by the state Legislature; the Permanent Fund Corp., the entity that manages state oil and natural resource royalties; the University of Alaska; Alaska Railroad; and the state court system.

Herrera said the initiative won the backing of key elected officials, and received approval from Alaska's powerful Telecommunications Information Council (TIC), which guides state telecom policy. "It was the direction the state of Alaska wanted to go, and it has the authority to set the direction," he said. "It definitely requires top-down endorsement."

Even with executive support, Walsh admits that promoting statewide collaboration requires substantial effort. "It's not easy to do, and sometimes, it's like turning an oil tanker," he said. "How people used to do things takes on a life of its own, and change is hard for people to take."

One welcome change, however, will be new teleconferencing services linking Fairbanks, Juneau and Anchorage. Cameras were installed in government offices in these three cities, enabling officials to conduct live teleconferences.

In a state with severe, unpredictable weather conditions, attending face-to-face meetings can be costly and inconvenient. "In Alaska, you can spend about $900 to send one person to a meeting," said Tom Bostik, Cisco's customer solutions manager. "That can wipe out a travel budget."

Walsh anticipates using teleconferencing services for other tasks, as well. "It could be used by Justice for video arraignments, dropping the cost of transporting a prisoner and leveraging the time of public safety officers," he said. "Our cost-saving estimates don't include any of those things."

Nor does the state's financial analysis address another potential benefit of the telecom project: economic development. Alaska is rich in natural resources, and in today's global economy, strategically located. Advanced communications capabilities could facilitate commerce and support private industry.

"I think if you look at the geographic position of Alaska, especially for air travel, we are closer to a lot of Asian and European capitals than we are to Washington, D.C.," Walsh said. "With Prudhoe Bay and the interest in further exploration for oil and gas as a strategic resource, there is a demand from companies for connectivity."

Anchorage, with nearly half the state's population; Juneau, the capital; and Fairbanks already are served with broadband. In addition, the North Pacific fiber runs through Alaska, connecting Seward to the Pacific Northwest, and then continues on to Japan. A microwave system parallels Alaska's few highways, and as a result of the new telecom project, the balance of more than 200 "road-free" villages and towns will be served by satellite communications.

Considering the multifaceted impact the statewide telecom project promises to deliver, Walsh says it is important to remember the ultimate goal of e-government. "Our mission is to deliver infrastructure and information that agencies can use to deliver their mission. If everything goes well, we can reuse that infrastructure over and over again," he said. "When that happens we are actually doing our job. We are enabling the agencies of government to serve the citizens of the state."
Darby Patterson Editor in Chief