The Kent Police Force is an enthusiastic advocate of do-it-yourself when it comes to managing voice and data networks - for the sound reason that it is cheaper.
Recent experience of migrating to a single converged network and implementing voice over IP throughout the force has strengthened its belief in this approach.
Cost is always a major factor in determining any investment for Kent Police. "We take the business case extremely seriously to ensure best value for taxpayers," said Andrew Barker, acting head of the Information Services Directorate (ISD) at Kent Police.
Like any other public sector agency or business, Kent Police balances cost against risk when making procurement decisions. "There is a prevailing sentiment that a higher cost for a managed service buys a lower-risk investment," said Barker. "I don't buy that argument."
Barker's conviction that in-house VoIP networks deliver better value stems from his experience of upgrading voice communications for Kent Police over a three-year period.
Telephony is crucial to Kent Police. It has 55 county-wide stations plus a call centre, and the phone remains the primary means of communication with the community. "Our existing system was based on an ageing infrastructure, and we were starting to encounter a number of performance problems, such as outages and incompatibility," said Barker.
Installing one IP network for voice and data and treating telephony as simply another application made a great deal of financial sense. The savings stemmed from maintaining one instead of two separate networks and a vastly reduced bill for telephony.
However, this financial calculation would have been very different had Kent proceeded with the bid for a managed service from one of the major telecoms providers. Accepting the bid for a managed service would not have decreased the force's telephony costs - in fact, it would have doubled the voice bill. Barker dismissed the managed service option as "hideously expensive and unaffordable".
Instead, Kent Police opted for a phased DIY approach and hired Computacenter for design and consultancy for the IP-based communications infrastructure. A phased approach towards the IP network and voice applications was adopted because at the time of Kent Police's upgrade, it was not economic to implement IP handsets wholesale.
Because of the then high cost of handsets, there was a point at which it became uneconomic - at around 15 handsets - so it decided to start with the smaller sites. "It was the less risky and economically sensible approach to take," said Barker. "Taking a phased approach was also useful in learning lessons from a virtual pilot."
The single network was installed and VoIP rolled out to all locations. However, until the cost of the IP handsets fell sufficiently, 17 sites retained their analogue Siemens PABXs and used bridging software to talk to the IP world.
Operating two universes in parallel, analogue and digital, created technical difficulties at the larger, legacy sites, but translation software from Abridge maintained functionality across the two environments, enabling "call forward" and "return to switchboard" to be passed between DPNS codes and IP domains.
To further mitigate the risk, Computacenter carried out a proof-of-concept exercise at a configuration centre. The Kent team used the staging facilities at the centre to replicate the force's proposed network architecture, and carried out more than 170 tests to evaluate its resilience, capacity and performance. The result was a functioning interim system, although Barker concedes the bridge between IP and analog was subject to interruption and breakdown.
Nor did full cost savings accrue until the IP handset part of the solution was fully rolled out. Although Kent Police immediately gained the cost savings that accompany using a single IP network for voice and IP calls, the other part of the cost equation comes from updating the routing from the legacy PABXs to the IP handset itself.
The chief cost savings of using IP handsets come about because of the intelligent routing capabilities that are distributed to the handset device. This results in a greatly reduced maintenance cost because moving, repairing and updating individual telephone extensions can be done centrally on a call manager server. "It's a very simple and flexible browser-based process for such activities," said Barker. And for the user, it is a case of plug 'n' go.
"That's a very big benefit in the police world," said Barker.
If there's a terror incident or a murder investigation, lots of personnel and officers are moved around. "Telecoms support for this kind of operation was traditionally a problem. In the new world, people just take their phone to the new location and plug it in," said Barker.
There are also opportunities to gain productivity savings from the integrated applications on the IP phone. One is accessing the full telephone directory rather than having to log onto the intranet, and there is the option to put lots of other intranet applications on the handset too, such as policing statistics and IT systems status. Meanwhile, the phone has been linked to personnel attendance systems and is used for clocking in and booking time off.
As a result of the implementation, three years down the line Kent Police has reaped bigger dividends than it expected. An anticipated annual saving of 30% on its communications costs has turned out to be nearer 40%.
Kent Police will also be able to add extra sites to its network at a much lower cost. In addition to the financial savings, the force has been able to enhance performance levels and deliver a consistent communications service across the county. "I cannot understand why companies in the public sector go for the managed option," said Barker.
This was first published in March 2006