In 2000, as the communications provider for Brockton, Mass., struggled to re-establish service, Mayor John T. Yunits' office was unreachable for three days, and the mayor wasn't happy.
"[The company] was providing poor service, and the city had no one with telecommunications experience to deal with the problems," Yunits said of his decision to hire George Walsh, formerly with AT&T, as Brockton's communications consultant. "I knew George had retired from the communications industry and asked for his assistance."
Building for the Future
Walsh's first task was to remedy the frequent service outages and climbing maintenance costs stemming from the building's nearly 20-year-old telecommunications infrastructure. Brockton also needed to replace costly discontinued equipment, such as $300 telephone units.
City executives already budgeted for a system upgrade, which made Walsh's job a little easier. With a budget and executive buy-in, Walsh hit the ground running by conducting a complete inventory and evaluating telecom solutions for Brockton's technical and budgetary needs.
The city eventually offered a contract to Alcatel for OmniPCX -- its Internet protocol (IP)-based private branch exchange (PBX). The Alcatel bid was $40,000 lower than its competitors -- enough of a difference to fully fund the necessary rewiring project within budget for the system upgrade -- which helped the city's efforts considerably.
The OmniPCX can be used as a traditional PBX and provides telephone service via standard copper lines. Its IP core, however, was engineered around the ubiquitous IP networking protocol and offers native voice over IP (VoIP) support. This means users can implement PBX and VoIP in stages, allowing them to budget for smaller portions of the total expenditure versus buying and implementing all upgrades at once.
For cities that can't afford a full upgrade to VoIP, the Omni system is a workable compromise. A staged upgrade will allow Brockton to use its existing infrastructure while implementing the already budgeted PBX upgrade.
"We're trying to evolve into a voice over IP system," Walsh said, adding that a benefit of VoIP is that it can be completed department by department, rather than upgrading the entire city at once. It also helps that the city already has a fiber-optic data network -- the network's trunks are suited to VoIP duty since they provide IP connectivity between all city departments and City Hall, Walsh said. Add-on components for the PBX and compatible telephones will help upgrade existing desktop telephones.
Walsh is working upgrades for departments into future budget cycles. Since all city departments will now use the existing fiber backbone as the connection medium, the VoIP upgrade would allow the city to completely remove the leased telephone lines to these departments.
Based on Brockton's monthly costs for telephone lines, he said, the savings should add up quickly for a full ROI. The first planned upgrade is the Water Department, which uses 30 CENTREX lines costing $15 each per month. That upgrade alone will save more than $5,000 per year, paying for the OmniPCX add-on module after three years.
"VoIP is foreign to me," Yunits said. "George tells me it will save us more money, so I hope to see the city using this feature sometime next year."
The new system offers full services, improved availability and efficiency compared with the CENTREX system, Walsh said, which lacked the most basic features, such as voice-mail.
Two years ago, if people called Brockton City Hall five minutes after close of business, they had to wait until start of business the next day for someone to answer. If someone called with a request for the Water Department and wanted the call transferred, tough luck. Brockton employees could only supply the phone number -- the CENTREX system could not transfer calls and had no built-in feature so users could look up the number.
Brockton's new system boasts more than 500 features, including a searchable employee directory, text messaging via built-in keyboard and display, and dial-by-name.
"It has so many features we haven't even learned half of them," Walsh said, adding that he has dealt with this issue since finishing the project's first phase. "There are a lot of features I'm just trying to get [users] to implement."
Another key feature allows authenticated users to send a voice message to multiple phone numbers. If the user has activated call forwarding, the message will automatically be sent to the forwarding number.
"If there's an emergency meeting needed, instead of having one of [the mayor's] secretaries call everybody individually and not [reach] them, we can call them all up," Walsh said. "And if they're not in their office, hopefully they'll have employed the call forwarding so [the message is forwarded] to their cell phone."
The expanded capabilities mean greatly improved service for city employees and residents alike. The system's text messaging feature, for example, can send messages to individual phones or groups of phones. Walsh said the feature proved handy in announcing the early closure of City Hall to employees before a blizzard.
Employees then programmed the system to inform callers that City Hall would close early to let staff get home before an impending blizzard hit. After city services were shut down, callers didn't have to wait until the storm was over and employees returned to work to know what was going on.
"Many people have had positive comments on finally being able to contact City Hall, and also to know about emergency closings, city events, etc.," Yunits said. "Employees now have an individual line and voice-mail to help them and their constituents."
Extended absence messages allowed city employees to tell customers why there was no one around for a long weekend. Walsh said city workers "were so excited that they could tell the customer why [no one was there] Friday afternoon or all day Monday. [City employees] never had that before."
The Bottom Line
The initial phase of Brockton's telecom refreshment project -- upgrading City Hall -- was completed in July 2002 and saved 60 percent in service fees from the decrease in leased lines.
Brockton officials said the city saves $15,000 each month, while simultaneously improving service to the city's 94,000 residents and 250 employees. Easier management and cheaper maintenance should also realize further savings for the city.
Officials said Brockton expects to realize a full ROI this December -- saving the entire cost of the upgrade -- because 18 months of savings will have accumulated since the project completed.
Randy Esser is an information security consultant living in the Pacific Northwest. He has worked in commercial and military IT for five years.