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Soft phone revolution: DoD shifting to Internet-based phone technology

Oct. 4, 2013 - 04:16PM   |  
By ADAM STONE   |   Comments
The Defense Department is moving vigorously to unplug traditional land-line phones and switch to Internet-based technology.
The Defense Department is moving vigorously to unplug traditional land-line phones and switch to Internet-based technology. (Army)
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The Defense Department has launched a sweeping effort to migrate from traditional hard-line phones to “soft” or Internet-based phones.

Today, 1 percent of military phones are soft phones; plans call for some 80 percent to shift to the Internet-based technology.

This is going to take more than just throwing a switch.

“If it were only just about the phones, the talking part, that’s not that hard. But this is one of the core missions, to make sure all the telecommunications will be interoperable,” said Cindy Moran, director of DISA’s network services directorate.

The monumental project involves about 2 million users across DoD, not counting the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force. Yet, outside observers say the military appears to be on its game.

“A project with this size and scope needs a pretty sophisticated plan and a pretty sophisticated rollout schedule over a period of time, and I think DoD recognizes that,” said John Klebonis, vice president of AT&T Government Solutions, DoD Segment.

EARLY EFFORT

DISA has learned much through a pilot program it has been running for 200 users over the past 12 months, Moran said.

In particular, the implementation has helped highlight issues surrounding precedence and pre-emption, topics that have long plagued Voice over IP, or VoIP. When the president calls the Joint Chiefs, that call needs to blast through any other traffic on the network, much as in the civilian world where 911 calls always have to go first. Moran said DISA engineers still are working on perfecting that element of the system.

Thanks to efforts on the civilian side, the technology exists, said Jeff Valentine, executive vice president of products and corporate development at VoIP provider Fonality, which hosts some 250,000 users. Valentine suggested that the military’s main task regarding precedence will not be on the technical side, but rather in the administrative effort to chart the hierarchies of precedence.

“It is just an issue of working out the prioritization,” he said.

SECURING THE SYSTEM

Equal to precedence is the military’s focus on security. So far, the technology itself appears secure, but the human element could complicate implementation. On a basic level, for instance, soft phones work off a headset rather than a handset, making it easier to overhear conversations. This calls for training, Moran said.

Industry observers say a move to soft phones could in fact enhance security, by merging today’s disparate telecommunications systems onto a single platform.

“When you go to a common environment, you can also set up common security requirements,” Klebonis said.

In the interim, however, security issues could slow implementation. Moran, for instance, said she has three hard-line phones on her desk but only one will likely become a soft phone anytime soon.

POTENTIAL SAVINGS

Considering all the complexities involved, DoD nonetheless has a number of good reasons for pursuing the soft phone course.

First is the matter of keeping up with technology. Analysts across the boards say soft phones soon will dominate the telecommunications environment, and recent actions tend to bear this out. Apple recently approved a soft phone app for the ubiquitous iPhone, for example, while leading soft phone maker CounterPath reported record first-quarter earnings. It’s apparent DoD planners don’t want to get left behind.

Then there’s the money. Right now, a traditional phone runs $300 to $500 to purchase, Moran said, where a soft phone costs about $50. Likewise, the cost of moving a hard-line phone as locations change becomes virtually nil when plugging a soft phone into an Internet connection.

Add to this mobility — the ease of taking soft phones with you. With an Internet-based protocol, laptops, tablets and other devices can easily serve as highly functional telephones on-the-go.

“Given that military people are often moving around among remote locations, soft phones represent a great opportunity,” said Caitlin Clark-Zigmond, senior director of hosted voice services for Comcast Business. “Among other things it means you don’t necessarily have to deploy a handset every time they get to a new location.”

One further boon — and it’s not trivial — is “presence.” This refers to the ability to see where and whether contacts are available. Moran said this is under examination as part of the DISA pilot program and will be part of the final implementation. In addition, as a VoIP-based technology, soft phones also offer the possibility of chat, video and other multimedia functions.

All these benefits depend on the construction of a robust network infrastructure. Herein lies the heavy lifting.

BUILDING THE BACKBONE

To some degree, DoD already is constructing the core of such a network. Moran noted that any new or renovated Army properties already are being equipped with an IP infrastructure, making them inherently soft phone-capable.

Planners still are working out the details of how a telecommunications backbone will be built to accommodate the new technology, while also developing a Unified Capabilities Requirement Document Approved Products List to help guide vendors in the implementation phase.

That effort to chart a safe, stable infrastructure likely will be the make-or-break element in the military’s plan to ditch its old land-line phones.

“The network is critical. If the network infrastructure is not in place and not performing at the appropriate level, then certainly the tools will also struggle,” Klebonis said.

Getting the networks right is key, observers say, since soft phones are utterly beholden to their networks’ ability to function at all times.

“Technology applications like this require an IT infrastructure that is always in a good state, if you are going to introduce a large group of users into this environment,” Clark-Zigmond said.

The bulk of that enterprise backbone should be completed within 12 months, Moran said. With that common infrastructure in place, formerly disparate DoD elements should have the ability to function interoperably across the boards.

Achieving interoperability may not be easy, some say, because tight controls are needed to maintain uniformity across a program of this scope.

Valentine, for instance, warns of what some might call functionality creep. If all vendors are held to a single standard, the network should work seamlessly across all DoD elements. But what happens when a vendor steps up with an all-too-tempting add-on feature? The impulse is to grasp at the improvement, but that impulse can start to chip away at the target of seamlessness.

“Those are the kinds of things you have to be careful of. It’s almost impossible to write a standard in a box,” Valentine said.

Even after a standard is established, the move to soft phones won’t happen all at once. Once the infrastructure is in place, DoD will take incremental steps toward its goal of 80 percent soft phones. Moran painted a scenario in which soft phones roll out over time as existing hard-line phones reach the end of their lifecycle.

In the meantime, the vendor community is tgetting into position for what could be a sweeping and complex acquisition.

“This is one of the hottest topics we see across DoD,” Klebonis said. “We are constantly in meetings talking about the state of the industry, the state of the technology today, what are the capabilities that are being developed. We are out there daily briefing on our capabilities in these areas.”

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