Video conferencing will soon be a decidedly mobile affair for government agencies and public schools in Arkansas.

The state is in the midst of developing a next-generation communications system that will give users state-of-the-art video, data and voice services, including the ability to video chat from any mobile device.

The project kicked off in June and while the integration of mobile devices into the system won’t begin until February 2012, the video storage and streaming capabilities are set to go online a month before in January.

Currently the Arkansas Department of Information Systems (DIS) has a contract with AT&T for video conferencing. But Claire Bailey, state CTO and director of the DIS, said the biggest driver of the change wasn’t unhappiness with the vendor, but rather the opportunities presented by the overall evolution of video technology. The procurement process for the new system is ongoing.Claire Bailey, CTO, Arkansas/Photo by Kelly Quinn

Bailey said that to do a video conference in the state, currently a person needs to call and schedule the time and physical location for that virtual meeting. But now that traffic is being driven to devices such as iPads and smartphones, Arkansas wants to embrace the change to a more mobile environment.

“You have that expectation ... that you can use your mobile devices to see and talk to each other at the same time,” Bailey said. “[Now,] how can we use that to improve the delivery of public service? That’s the vision of this strategy.”

Bailey revealed that Arkansas is negotiating with a vendor for the” any-to-any device” video environment, but that this piece of the system will be rolled out gradually.

Because the state’s public schools and universities are the largest users of the video conferencing capabilities, Bailey said the DIS wants to make sure standard video chats are available with the new system by the time schools are in session following the holiday break in December.

To support the new communications system, Arkansas is also adopting a new multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) network. MPLS is a data-carrying mechanism widely utilized in high-performance telecommunications networks.

Bailey said the contract for the MPLS network has been awarded and her office will be working closely with providers throughout the remainder of 2011 to segment the state to roll out MPLS.

“All of the video network, MPLS and the any-to any environment have to work together, in-concert, to ensure the capabilities are in-hand and ready to go,” she explained. “Now, we will use the existing backbone that we have in place as we go to the environment in the December timeframe.”

Scheduling Coming In-House

While the state’s existing network infrastructure won’t be replaced with the new system, the scheduling and support of video-conferencing services is getting an overhaul.

As a part of Arkansas’ new video strategy, scheduling functions are moving in-house to DIS instead of being contracted out.

Bailey said that given the thousands of hours that educators use video conferencing and the fixed technology assets already present in classrooms, it made no sense to replace infrastructure. But when the state did a survey and consulted video experts, it found that scheduling and support services were a constant complaint among users.

“It was one of the most expensive cost components, and our customers weren’t seeing the value in today’s economy,” Bailey explained. “So we’re going to try it [in-house].”

Bailey said the cost savings of moving the scheduling component in-house will cut the state’s costs for the system by more than half.

“I think when we started down the path of video and our distance education ... it was an expensive adventure for all of us,” Bailey said. “Some of those issues in contracting for public services, we work with our corporate partners, but at some point [the] infrastructure and support costs needed to be reviewed and adjusted.”

Bailey said that she heard from a lot of people who have questioned bringing scheduling functions in-house, particularly since no state positions will be added for the additional work. But she believes the cost savings justified the choice.

“We’ll be monitoring customer service, cost and the delivery of it,” Bailey said. “If it is not working, we’ll go back and negotiate ... with our public- and private-sector partners.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.