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799Mt. Weather telecom article

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  • Albert LaFrance
    Feb 11, 2000
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      From Government Computer news

      GCN February 8, 1999

      Combining voice and data traffic is cost-efficient, FEMA says
      Tests indicate carrying voice calls on data links saves money, may result
      in ease of management
      By William Jackson
      GCN Staff

      The new compression technology is better than I had ever heard.

      When the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up a field office in
      Puerto Rico after Hurricane Georges, it saved up to $1,500 a day in
      long-distance charges by piggybacking voice calls on its data links.

      FEMA has been testing voice-over-data products for disaster field offices
      in the Caribbean and the southern United States since the summer.

      The whole experience is very promising,� said Bill Anderson, team leader in
      the Development and Implementation Branch of FEMA�s Information Technology
      Division. �The cost benefit is impressive.�

      Other potential benefits are greater efficiency and ease of
      management�important factors for setting up field offices within days in
      devastated areas.

      Only a test
      The field trials evaluated the Multiservice Concentrator 3810 from Cisco
      Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif.

      �We happened to be testing it at the time,� said Timothy S. Ritter, chief
      of the Disaster Response Branch in the Engineering Division of FEMA�s IT
      Directorate. When Hurricane Bonnie hit the North Carolina coast, �Cisco let
      us borrow some of the equipment for use in Raleigh.�

      Later, the concentrators carried phone calls to and from Puerto Rico and
      the U.S. Virgin Islands.

      They also helped out during recent flooding in Texas.

      FEMA is testing additional equipment from Northern Telecom Inc. and Lucent
      Technologies Inc. of Murray Hill, N.J., but has made no decision on what to
      adopt. �We need to have an acquisition plan together by the end of this
      fiscal year,� Anderson said.

      Management of FEMA�s voice and data networks is the job of the National
      Network Operations Center at the Mount Weather Emergency Assistance Center,
      housed at a former presidential retreat atop the Blue Ridge mountains of
      western Virginia.

      The data network is a packet-based IP/IPX multivendor routed network.
      FEMA�s Integrated Services Digital Network for voice has private branch
      exchanges to do the switching.

      After the divestiture of AT&T Corp., �we decided we would become our own
      telephone company,� said Robert A. Morris, chief of national network

      The switched voice network provides telephone communications to FEMA
      facilities throughout the United States and its territories, but remote
      disaster response sites must make long-distance connections to reach FEMA�s

      Initial links for a disaster field office sometimes must go via satellite
      if the local communications infrastructure has been damaged. FEMA maintains
      two full-time T1 connections on the Telstar 401 satellite.

      Satellite links give way to more efficient terrestrial lines. Modern
      telecommunications systems have reduced the need for satellite hookups,
      Anderson said.

      When disaster field offices need more permanent connections, FEMA extends
      the LAN from Mount Weather to an asynchronous transfer mode router at the
      remote site via a T1 link. Telephone connections usually are established
      over two T1 links from a PBX to the local central office.

      �Anything going out over telephone is a long-distance call,� Ritter said.
      �We have FTS 2000 as a primary choice, so we have reasonable rates.� But
      calls to other FEMA offices still are toll calls.

      Voice-compression technology is what makes it feasible for field offices to
      use excess capacity on the data lines to carry voice calls toll-free and
      possibly eliminate one of the T1 voice lines.

      A voice compression box ties the local PBX to the router. The PBX gets its
      dial tone from Mount Weather. It directs local calls to the local central
      office. Long-distance calls and calls within the FEMA network are switched
      to the router for a free ride to Mount Weather.

      Eight-to-one compression makes eight voice channels out of a single 64-Kbps
      Digital Signal-0 channel, and the voice quality is good, Anderson said.

      �That was one of the biggest surprises to me,� Anderson said. �The new
      compression technology is better than I had ever heard. It sounds
      equivalent to toll quality.�

      Systems tested so far are not perfect, however. The compression cards do
      not handle high-speed modem connections or fax traffic very well. �We have
      to do a little more programming on our network to identify modem calls and
      occasionally faxes,� he said.

      But combining voice and data traffic is worth the effort, Anderson said.

      By routing 715 hours of what otherwise would have been long-distance calls
      from Puerto Rico over the ATM link, FEMA saved $9,445.
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