Calling All Phones

VoIP looks to be the next new thing, although an Internet-based telephone system may not be right for all governments right now.
July 2004
Ellen Perlman
By Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

Bill Miller was scrounging around on eBay, searching for parts to replace pieces of Nevada County, California's aging telephone system, when it occurred to him that it might be a good time to replace the failing system. Miller, the county's desktop services manager, knew that whatever he chose would be around for 15 to 20 years. He decided to turn to a new technology that's slowly gaining steam: Voice over Internet Protocol--or VoIP.

With VoIP, voice is transmitted on the same lines computers use, just like e-mail. Phones are connected to a network, whether it is the Internet, a government's local area network or a wide area network that runs across the country. Instead of jurisdictions having to keep separate telephone and network departments, they can consolidate and run it all with the same team.

With a conventional phone system, every time workers change desks, departments or buildings, they must have their phone number moved to their new station. With VoIP, they just plug the old phone in at the new location and use the same old phone number. Employees can also hold video conferences at their desks during regular phone calls with little more effort than dialing a regular phone.

While all those features are major pluses, many technology officials are not yet convinced that VoIP is reliable and secure. Most believe the kinks will be worked out, and when they are, they will head that way.

Nevada County had several reasons for taking a chance now. Band-Aids and chewing gum were not working very well to keep its ragged system together. The creaky old telephone lines between the courts, the administration building and the health, education and welfare building in the county were costing $60,000 a year to maintain. Replacing that system with VoIP saves money, reduces the amount of labor needed to service networks and makes it easier to find people to maintain the technology. With the new system, the county was able to expand phone service on the network to several additional offices, some of them as far as 60 miles away, and yet spend only $37,000 a year for maintenance.

As a side benefit, morale improved for the telephone maintenance crew because techies prefer working with the latest Internet technologies. "I've got nine trained technicians now," Miller says. "Before, I couldn't buy one."

Nevada County isn't alone in its VoIP adventure. Other smaller cities--Hoover, Alabama; Miramar, Florida; Enumclaw, Washington--are putting their money on VoIP, making this an example of smaller entities latching onto a leading-edge technology that the big players fear is too bleeding edge for them. States seem to be waiting for a very high level of performance. Otto Doll, the chief information officer of South Dakota, for instance, says that VoIP's implementations so far don't meet the state's performance criteria. In Wisconsin, the VoIP reluctance stems from a telephone deal that is so good it doesn't pay to convert to a new system. The state is, however, sharing with the University of Wisconsin in the testing of the technology.

Big cities are tiptoeing into VoIP. Denver is using it in city hall and municipal buildings. San Francisco has a pilot project to use it at 100 desks in the parks and recreation department. Rockville, Maryland, has 400 VoIP phones in place, and Arlington County, Virginia, has been using it for more than a year.

For states and big cities, however, reliable communication with the public is an overriding issue. The preferred method of contacting government is still via the telephone. States can't afford to have a system that might drop calls or be vulnerable to attack, says Doug Robinson, executive director of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, which is now working on a VoIP research paper.

Security is an issue for Nevada County, too. Miller notes that because the system runs through networks rather than dedicated lines, there's a possibility for virus attacks that would take down not only computers but telephones, too. It's a risk he was willing to take, however, and he expects larger counties will follow suit--but slowly.