September 24, 2009 By Dan Lohrmann
I attended a broadband summit where the keynote speaker began with a question: "Who has enough bandwidth?" A few of the several hundred attendees sheepishly raised a hand, but many more started laughing or whispering to colleagues with an irritated look of disbelief. The fact is, most crave higher LAN and WAN speeds, and the public sector is no exception. Despite a steady drop in prices, public CIOs can't keep up with the growing demand from customers and their new, bandwidth-hungry applications.
From deploying VoIP to offering online training or other cloud-based solutions, Internet and intranet use is exploding. Oftentimes, government networks have fiber backbone connectivity with high-speed LANs for their central offices and headquarters, while regional or remote offices are connected with T1 (1.544 Mbps) or slower pipes. Worse yet, some government sites are still using dial-up connections while they wait for broadband stimulus dollars to transform rural America. Employees even complain that their home networks are faster than their Internet connectivity at work.
What's to be done with shrinking technology budgets? For decades we've known that bundling bandwidth can save dollars. As prices fall, the simple telecommunication math showed that a T3 line (44.736 Mbps) costs between three and six times as much as a T1 line, but offers almost 30 times the capacity, according to Michael Lemm, owner of FreedomFire Communications, a voice and data firm. But the bundling math continues to improve. Recently Michigan signed a contract with AT&T, which offers 500 Mbps pipes between numerous locations for less than four times the price the state pays for a dedicated T1 service.
This means that new opportunities to partner, by sharing networks between state and local governments, have never been more financially or technologically compelling. Here's an example to consider: Let's assume there are 16 dedicated T1 WAN circuits running into various local and state government facilities in one county. If those facilities could connect securely into a county fiber network backbone and ride one consolidated 500 Mbps pipe back to the fiber backbone network, the potential network cost savings would be huge. The quick math shows a 75 percent cost reduction, while offering about 20 times the bandwidth for each of those offices. The annual leased circuit savings for that county alone would be more than $100,000.
This example isn't hypothetical. Michigan's state government currently has nearly 800 dedicated circuits running at various speeds, so the ongoing savings from bundling bandwidth is substantial and the operational benefits are tremendous.
You may be thinking, 'OK, where's the catch? If this is so easy, why hasn't this scenario been more widely adopted in Michigan and nationwide?' The answer goes back to a few assumptions I made about the availability to connect into local government fiber (or perhaps high-speed wireless) backbones. Some of these locations don't have county networks. (However, broadband stimulus dollars and rural broadband plans will soon be changing that connectivity status quo.) Meanwhile, these county or regional networks exist in many parts of the country.
This brings us to the main reason that progress in this area has been slow. Our greatest challenge is governance. Local government CIOs may be thinking: Why do I want to share my network with the state? This connectivity isn't free. What's in it for me? I don't trust the state (or the feds, for that matter). What about security, service-level agreements (SLAs), demarcation points, staffing or a host of other issues?
These discussions must be addressed in memorandums of understanding between governments. Expectations about SLAs must be met on all sides and the savings shared. This deal must be win-win. Michigan is addressing these topics with Oakland County and other local jurisdictions. There's no doubt the governance process will take time and won't be easy.
Nevertheless, the opportunities are immense, and a similar analysis can be applied to connectivity between federal and state government networks. The bottom line is we need to rethink our enterprise architectures. The exciting thing is that shared government networks offer higher speeds and big savings.
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