Slaying the Six-Headed Hydra

Looking at $15 million to rebuild its five separate data networks and $25 million to upgrade its archaic voice network, Dallas is embracing voice over IP and singing the praises of convergence.

by / August 31, 2001
Why spend $40 billion and end up with five data networks and one voice network when you can spend $33 billion on a new network that will carry voice and data?

For Dan McFarland, Dallas CIO, voice over IP (VoIP) was the way to go.

"Ive always kept my eye on [VoIP] technology," McFarland said. "I felt that that was the technology that was going to allow us to make our networks ubiquitous and allow us to save a lot of dollars. In my opinion, its the perfect platform."

McFarland said his VoIP phone has been ringing off the hook with inquiries from other municipal governments in the United States, Australia and Europe.

"They all want to know what we think the benefits are to the system; how much savings do we think well get out of the system; and why we picked the technology," he said. "Our decision to go with new technology was simplified from the standpoint that we had five separate large networks that werent interconnected. We had a crumbling old Centrex system. We had a lot of things that we needed to make changes to in the city."

PBX No More
What the city didnt want was to purchase another phone system that would need to be replaced in another few years, McFarland said, noting that some of the phones sitting on employees desks are more than 10 years old, making replacement parts difficult to find.

Under the terms of the deal the city signed, Dallas is leasing the VoIP equipment, something that cities havent traditionally done, he said, adding that the city wanted to avoid the circle of issuing equipment notes, buying the equipment, and, after the notes are paid off, having to start the whole process over again.

"We want to make sure that we always have current technology," he explained. "By leasing that equipment, we can replace it; we can change it out. When we negotiated our deal, part of it was that we have all the software upgrades and everything provided to us on a maintenance agreement. Were assured of having the most current, up-to-date software there is."

Ultimately, Dallas will have approximately 8,500 VoIP phones and 5,000 PCs sharing the same network, McFarland said, adding that roughly 325 people are now using the new phones.

The switch to the new network has been broken down into three phases, and the last phase should wrap up around January 2003, said Michael Jones, Dallas assistant director of communications and information services.

The city is not rolling out VoIP department by department; rather, officials performed cost analyses for city buildings and installed the requisite cabling and telephones in buildings that would provide the most payback, Jones said.

But ultimately, the projects payoff goes beyond replacing outdated telecommunications equipment.

"We are literally replacing all of our data infrastructure at the same time; it goes hand in hand with the VoIP," he said. "The payoffs to my end users are a faster, more secure, more manageable network. The old network, on the data side and on the voice side, was more than maxed out. We would have been unable to deploy large, citywide applications."

The VoIP traffic will run on its own virtual private network, Jones added, which helps the city manage potentially troublesome quality-of-service issues that could lead to dropped voice packets.

Numbers Game
When looking for bids on the implementation, Dallas officials stressed the importance of their existing phone numbers.

"We did not want to change telephone numbers, so coming up with a workable dial plan was an extremely large challenge," Jones said. "We have four different NXXs [the first three digits after the area code] across the city. Ideally, what one would do if deploying VoIP would be to go out and get a brand new NXX and everybody gets a new phone number."

Dallas did not want to do that since all its telephone numbers -- emergency and otherwise -- have been published for years in the citys phone books.

"It would be quite a disruption to the public if we had to change our phone numbers," he said.

Due to the condition of the old voice network, implementing VoIP actually helped the city save its phone numbers. Jones said that if the city had not approved the VoIP transition, the phone network would have been upgraded using traditional switched technology and he would very likely have had to get approval to change city telephone numbers.

Jones also believes that small municipalities are ideal candidates for switching to VoIP because, in part, such municipalities wont have the headache of dealing with large numbers of sites.

"If youre a smaller municipality with a limited number of locations, it would be much easier," he said. "We have over 300 sites here to take into consideration, and engineering this was quite the challenge."

More Than a Vendor
McFarland cautions that a move to VoIP requires more than striking a deal with a vendor.

"We were absolutely adamant that we had to have a good partner," he said. "We didnt want to go directly with a vendor. Were putting in a communications network, and we really needed to go with someone that understood the telephony and the circuit-end of it and also to function as a system administrator. Its not just about equipment; its all about the ability to provide service."

While Dallas is relishing its role as a telephony trendsetter at the local government level, other governments havent displayed an eagerness to jump into VoIP. As both McFarland and Jones emphasized, the technology has only recently reached a maturation point that made them feel good about making the switch.

Local governments sometimes lack the incentive to make such a switch, said Joe Ewen, strategic account director of SBC Communications, who serves as SBCs lead on the Dallas project.

"Its my observation that government at the municipal level is risk averse," said Ewen, who also served four terms on a city council of a city in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. "Lets say that we do deploy this new VoIP technology, and it does everything [we] believe it will do. What is the payoff to the decision maker who took the risk?"

The catch-22 that faces decision makers at the local level is that if they succeed at a project, they dont reap kudos because theyre expected to succeed, Ewen explained. And if they fail, the municipality is probably scouting resumes for potential replacements.

Cost is another significant factor for municipal governments as they juggle raises for employees, building more streets, providing land for parks and putting more books in libraries.

"By and large, the tendency on the part of municipal government is to say, Those are priorities, and the technology isnt necessarily a priority," he said. "Municipal governments face many, many competing demands on scarce resources."

Despite the newness of VoIP, McFarland is happy with Dallas progress.

"When we looked at VoIP, we didnt see the future out there; we saw the future now," he said. "We knew that this was something that we really wanted to do."