Call of the VoIP

FRAMINGHAM (03/02/2000) - Alaska is so remote that many of its cities and outposts can only be reached by air or dog sled. Its communities are separated by expanses of tundra, densely forested mountains and more than three million lakes.

Nowhere is an IP-based communications network more vital.

"Given our size, remoteness and lack of roads, telecommunications is perhaps more important to Alaska's future than most any other place. It's really the only way we stay connected," says Bob Poe, commissioner of administration for Alaska.

Already, the state of Alaska has found the Internet to be the only effective way to bring government services to its populace of 630,000. Through Alaska's Web mart,, citizens can get just about any government service online -- public notices; public safety and criminal justice information; prospecting maps; car registration and personalized plates; state job listings; and fish and game licenses, to name a few.

But Alaska's leaders aren't stopping there. The state's ultimate goal is to roll out a new IP-based network between its central administration building in Anchorage and 38 satellite offices. The ultimate goal: a single IP-based data and voice network connecting all state offices within the next 18 months.

It's an ambitious goal, especially since some of the technology that's needed does not yet scale high enough to handle the thousands of daily calls between the state's 13,000 workers.

For that matter, the IT staff isn't totally convinced of the reliability of the existing telecom system a series of wireless satellite links and copper wire that enters the state via undersea cable. But state leaders and IT support teams, enticed by the idea of improved efficiency and reduced network management costs, are forging ahead anyway.

The IP network concept dates back to 1998 when Alaska took bids to equip a 19-floor building in Anchorage with a new centralized IP network. The work was completed in late 1998, and the building is dubbed Alaska's smart building.

Before the renovation, it was nearly impossible for state employees to share data because each department ran its own LAN with no common backbone, hardware or software. Now the 708 state employees in this new facility can access and share files in real time. They also share the costs of network operations.

The new core network, a redundant fiber backbone, Cisco Systems Inc. 5509 switches and 8540 core routers, is really a dream case study of anarchy that has been coaxed into order, says David Adams, a principal at AMC Engineers in Anchorage, the engineering firm that helped design the project. The equipment was installed by the Department of Administration's Information Technology Group (ITG), which also maintains the new network.

The new IP network in the Anchorage administration building is ready for voice over IP, but there are issues to be resolved before Alaska makes the leap to the technology.

First, the state has made a significant investment in existing Nortel Networks Corp. telephones and switching equipment. Officials are grappling with how to justify ripping out the Nortel phone gear and reinvesting in IP telephone boxes, software and servers. "We have 13,000 employees. If all those desk sets have to be replaced, there's a certain math to overcome," Poe says.


The second issue is the technology. ITG is setting up an IP baseline test across 571 miles of frame relay between government offices in Juneau and Anchorage to see if voice can be carried over its existing communications infrastructure. "Once the analysis is complete, the state will issue a formal request for proposal," says Mark Badger, the state's chief technology officer.

"Alaska is very bandwidth-challenged, especially in the winter," says Karen Morgan, deputy director of ITG. "We just had 100 mph winds in the Anchorage bowl area that brought down power lines and caused avalanches. In fact, avalanches aren't all that unusual around here. So in terms of sending voice over IP outside the building, we are proceeding with caution until we can make some better calculations."

"Since running voice and data over the same line would halve the number of telephone links into remote government offices, that would mean easier management and repair, even in times of bad weather," Morgan adds. "Voice over IP would cut down the management of multiple links, and would save us time and expense."


The state is also waiting for IP telephone equipment to be able to scale to handle thousands of inbound and outbound telephone calls as reliably, or better than, traditional switched telephony.

"Alaska's on the bleeding edge. Reliability and scalability are a major challenge for voice-over-IP service providers and equipment vendors. It's very important that they don't lower the bar of performance," says Tom Valovic, an analyst at International Data Corp., a market research firm in Framingham, Mass.

Hank Lambert, IP telephony product manager for Cisco, agrees. He says it will take Cisco about 18 months to deliver a fully scalable voice-over-IP system.

"And with most of these government agencies quite literally out in the boondocks, cost savings on long-distance alone would make the effort worth it," says Stan Hererra, ITG network manager.

But there are other benefits that appeal to Poe. Imagine a voice/video conference call between an emergency medical outpost in, say, Nome, to a cardiologist in Anchorage while an EKG is simultaneously downloaded over the same connection.

Or how about cyberlaw? A defendant in Prudhoe Bay can virtually stand trial while connected to an attorney in Dillingham, the district attorney in Juneau, and a judge in Anchorage. No dog sleds or airplanes needed.

Suddenly, Alaska's 586,412 square miles don't seem like such a big deal anymore.

Radcliff is a freelance writer in northern California. She can be reached at

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