Destruction from Hurricane Ike and providing IT infrastructure for a booming suburban population has led one Texas city to overhaul its digital backbone.
Pearland, Texas, a 30-minute drive south of Houston, is one of the fastest growing suburbs in the country. Pearland has more than tripled its population in the past 10 years and is now home to about 120,000 residents. The city is projected to grow even more in the future.
In September 2008, Hurricane Ike pulled the roof off the City Hall. In order to rebuild, the city began construction on a new parks and recreation center and a new public safety building. The new buildings would need phones, of course, so the time came to make a decision about infrastructure. The Pearland city government’s existing phone setup was Nortel Meridian PBX, a popular option for business and government that by this year was starting to show its age. The city’s data infrastructure was a group of decentralized 1 gigabit systems from Cisco Systems.
John Knight, IT manager of Pearland, said the original plan was to just get 50 phones. But once city officials started looking at the system and thinking about the future — and the expected growth — they purchased 250 phones and upgraded the data network too.
“We didn’t want to go backward,” Knight said.
The city took bids from several top networking providers, including Cisco Systems, but wound up buying from Alcatel-Lucent. “We looked for a vendor that could provide a turnkey solution that could provide both data and voice over IP for our new facilities,” Knight said. “And Alcatel-Lucent was able to provide what we needed.”
The city invested $200,000 upgrading the network, which now connects six buildings located within a few miles of one another: the parks and recreation center, the public safety building, City Hall and three fire stations.
Pearland’s new voice and data network has a 10 gigabit backbone. It’s much faster than the old network. Speed is always a good thing, but what’s also convenient is that the new network has a centralized database.
Centralization makes things simpler and eliminates waste. If a police officer needs to scan a badge to get into a building, in a centralized system he can scan the same badge at the public safety building or the fire station, or at any building connected to the network. Without centralization the officer needs multiple badges, which is inconvenient for him and multiplies administrative upkeep.
A centralized network with high bandwidth also means the ability to view video surveillance cameras from anywhere on the network, rather than needing inside the building where the event is happening. In an emergency, that convenience and time savings can make a big difference.
Pearland’s new system uses phones that have little built-in keyboards. The centralized network allows anyone with a phone to search for anyone else on the network by name, from their phone. All the phones on the network also look and work the same, regardless of which interface they use to connect to the network, so no one in the city has to learn how to use multiple phone systems.
Mike Tomlinson, an account director for Alcatel-Lucent, said that one of the big issues Pearland brought up was the possibility of downtime. “All these systems have redundancies built-in and when you’re down in Hurricane Alley, like we all are, these systems can pretty much ensure there’s no downtime,” Tomlinson said.
The city was initially worried about using VoIP, because if Internet service went down, the city didn’t want to lose their phones too, especially during an emergency. This is where redundancies make using VoIP a practical solution. There are T1 backup lines for data and traditional backup phone systems in case of an outage. So while it’s possible for all the systems to go down during an emergency such as a hurricane, only an unlikely series of events would take down all of the redundancies. And the building that houses the network’s equipment, the public safety building, is designed to withstand Category 5 hurricane winds.
The system’s scalability was also attractive for Pearland, especially given its projected growth. If the city needs to buy hundreds more phones, it won’t have to buy a completely new solution. The city plans to expand the network eventually and the ability to scale the network will permit a level of freedom for that expansion.
There are a lot of communities south of Houston that are booming like Pearland. But Pearland is one of the few to make a large investment in cutting-edge technology.