This report is based on the activities of the Digital Communities program, a network of public- and private-sector IT professionals who are working to improve local governments’ delivery of public service through the use of digital technology. The program — a partnership between Government Technology and e.Republic’s Center for Digital Government — consists of task forces that meet online and in person to exchange information on important issues facing local government IT professionals.

More than 1,000 government and industry members participate in Digital Communities task forces focused on digital infrastructure, law enforcement and big city/county leadership. The Digital Communities program also conducts the annual Digital Cities and Digital Counties surveys, which track technology trends and identify and promote best practices in local government.

Digital Communities quarterly reports appear in Government Technology magazine in March, June, September and December.

A Look at Who's Using UC and Why

In 2007, Bill Gates said that “taking the magic of software and applying it to phone calls,” would transform communications and lead to the eventual death of the public branch exchange or PBX. “Once you get software in the mix, the capabilities go way beyond what anybody thinks of today when they think of phone calls,” he told Network World. “This is a complete transformation of the business of the PBX.”

The business of the PBX has been to provide voice telephone service to organizations like cities and counties at lower cost than purchasing individual lines from the phone company. Rather than buying 1,000 phone lines at $60 per month, the organization can buy a PBX telephone switch and connect those 1,000 phones to that switch using the organization’s wiring. So the organization has phones for its own internal use. Then it can connect that switch to the external public switched telephone network with, say, 75 lines for making and receiving external calls. The cost drops to less than $5,000 per month plus the one-time cost of the PBX switch. So it was a very good solution at the time.

But times have changed. Voice no longer needs to run in a separate stovepipe. Cellphones and mobile devices provide one user-friendly interface for multiple forms of communication, such as voice, video, text and email. Skype, Google video chat and other services enable voice and video communication around the world — at no or very little cost and with no PBX.

Today, as cities and counties look at replacing aging PBX switches or upgrading their systems, they have some interesting options as voice yields to the magic of software and many different forms of communication converge in the same digital pipe. Unified communications (UC) offers enhanced capabilities and a new playing field for contact centers, mobile communication, computers and networks. What a smartphone or tablet does for the individual, UC does for organizations — it integrates multiple media types and provides a single user interface. And that functionality has the potential to reduce government costs, increase flexibility and boost efficiency.

Tuscaloosa, Alabama, tornado“Typically with UC the desk phone is connected to a PC, or sometimes the PC serves as the phone as well as the computer,” said Bill Schrier, former Seattle CTO. “In this fashion, email, voicemail and telephone directories are all integrated into the PC.”

Photo: IP-based communications let Tuscaloosa, Ala., deploy two emergency action centers a few hours after the city was devastated by a massive tornado. Photo by Christopher Mardorf/FEMA

With UC, desk phones and smartphones can be integrated, so that during work hours, for example, an incoming call rings on an employee’s desk phone and cellphone — a useful feature for workers in the field.

Another function that UC brings is “presence,” the ability to look at an electronic directory and see a person’s availability, reducing the amount of time wasted playing phone tag.

Some UC solutions are on-site systems purchased and owned by the jurisdiction. Others are hosted by a vendor and accessed via an Internet connection. In this special section, Digital Communities talked to a number of cities and counties about their experiences with UC, the lessons learned and what advice they have for other local governments.

Tuscaloosa, Ala.

On the afternoon of April 27, 2011, a huge tornado — estimated to be a half-mile wide at the ground with winds up to 200 mph — moved into Tuscaloosa, Ala. It cut directly through Tuscaloosa and Birmingham and left a trail of destruction for 380 miles across the state.

Forty-four Tuscaloosa residents died and untold others suffered injuries. It was a dark day, but the city had done advanced disaster planning and installed a unified communications system, without which things could have been much worse.

“We’d been preparing for emergencies for several years,” said Doug Taylor, director of the Tuscaloosa Information Technology Department, “and the entire city had extensive training.” Tuscaloosa implemented two emergency action centers in just a couple of hours, one at its City Hall and the other at the Police Department, he said. “Without it, I don’t know what we’d have done.”

Terminology Cheat Sheet

  • Unified Communications (UC): The integration of real-time communication services, such as instant messaging (chat), presence information, telephony (including IP telephony), video conferencing, data sharing, call control and speech recognition with non-real-time communication services like unified messaging (integrated voicemail, email, SMS and fax). UC is not necessarily a single product, but a set of products that provides a consistent unified user interface and user experience across multiple devices and media types.
  • PBX: A telephone exchange (public branch exchange) that serves a particular business or office, as opposed to one that a common carrier or telephone company operates for many businesses or for the general public. PBXes make connections among the internal telephones of an organization and also connect them to the public switched telephone network via trunk lines.
  • Centrex: Centrex is a PBX-like service providing switching at the central office instead of at the customer’s premises. Typically the telephone company owns and manages all the communications equipment and software necessary to implement the Centrex service and then sells various services to the customer.
  • Contact Center: A contact center handles letter, fax, live chat, email, etc., in one location.
  • Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN): The PSTN consists of telephone lines, fiber-optic cables, microwave transmission links, cellular networks, communications satellites and undersea telephone cables, all interconnected by switching centers, thus allowing any telephone to communicate with any other.
  • VoIP: Voice over Internet protocol refers to communications services that are transported via an IP network, rather than the PSTN.
  • Presence: A function that tells you if the person you want to contact is available to receive a call or text message, etc. — Source: Wikipedia
The quick setup was enabled in part by a citywide IP communications system running on Tuscaloosa’s fiber network. “The voice over IP enabled us to place telephones wherever we needed them.”

That was extremely important, said Taylor. “We lost our Emergency Management Department. The whole building — which was formerly a General Motors factory — is extremely large and it was just blown away.

“We lost all of that and still maintained the ability to communicate on the rest of our systems,” Taylor added. The system — which began as an upgrade to provide a 311 call center — was installed by ShoreTel and became the city’s basic switchboard. “The actual installation was very easy, from an IT standpoint, because the phones plug into an IP network,” he said.

Taylor said the system is on-premises — and he thinks that’s better than a cloud-style subscription. “We have all our equipment here at our locations,” he said. “The systems that you have replicate each other on the switches, so if you have good connections like fiber between locations — like a spider web — you can actually lose a system and stay operational.”

Now, some 1,100 of the city’s 1,300 employees are on the new system. “We don’t have all the unified communications bells and whistles,” Taylor said, “but what we do have here, we really utilize.”

Palm Beach County, Fla.

View Full Story
Wayne Hanson  | 

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.