Study: Agencies need top-notch telecom networks

Government’s requirements now resemble those of a telephone carrier rather than just a large consumer.

The federal government's telecommunications needs now resemble those of a telephone carrier rather than just a large consumer, according to a new study from a market analysis firm.

Some agency networks span thousands of domestic and international locations, require the highest reliability possible -- 99.999 percent, or "five nines" -- and could involve "almost every form of communications technology," stated the white paper by Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president of McLean, Va., Federal Sources Inc. The research was requested by Naperville, Ill.-based telecommunications solutions provider Tellabs Inc.

Government information-sharing requirements have expanded in the post-Sept. 11 world, contributing to carrier-class federal needs. "If information has become so important, then obviously you need networks, and really good networks," Bjorklund said in an interview.

The upshot is that the government often will continue to rely on the private sector, but increasingly will have to integrate and supervise networks, Bjorklund said. "The government wants a whole lot more visibility into how their systems are working, and particularly their networks," he said.

Some agencies now design their networks to encompass multiple carriers as well as technologies, and that requires more government control, Bjorklund said. For example, the Justice Department selected two vendors to build practically parallel networks for its Unified Telecommunications Network in order to guard against network failure.

"It's not going to happen everywhere in the government, but for the very large complex networks, we are seeing this as being the trend," Bjorklund said.

Also, some old ways of managing networks no longer may work in today's constrained budget environment. For example, agencies sometimes have guaranteed their performance levels by providing more bandwidth than they need. "This is not a cost-effective approach," the study noted.

Other drivers of the government's carrier-class demands include requests for high-bandwidth applications, such as those for multimedia, networked storage and virtual private networks. Not included in that list are voice services, the need for which has been rising at a relatively slow pace compared to that for data services.

Another factor is a push toward all Internet protocol networks as a way to ensure interoperability. Expanding or managing separate networks for each individual protocol, such as time division multiplex for voice and asynchronous transfer mode for switched data network services, would be prohibitively expensive, according to the paper.

But a transition to an all-IP environment will not be instantaneous, meaning all protocols would need continued support until a switch is complete. "Certain carrier-class equipment enables legacy protocols and IP/Ethernet to interoperate seamlessly together," the paper stated.

Federal networks already are among the biggest in the world. The U.S. Postal Service operates a network covering about 17,000 locations, making it the largest within the government. When completed, the Federal Aviation Administration's new wide area network will consist of about 35,000 voice, radar and data links to 5,000 locations.

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