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Aging System Could Cripple Mount Airy Communications

March 18, 2014

In Mount Airy, N.C., city officials have been warned that unless they revamp their communications system the city government's phone system could fail and elude simple repair. A failure to the system could leave emergency crews without telephone services, and other government officials would similarly find themselves without the ability to receive or initiate calls. IP telephony could help solve the city’s problems.

The Mount Airy News reports that, in 2009, a consultant who was hired to look into the matter, Tom Weimin of ClientFirst Consulting Group, recommended that the city purchase $378,000 worth of IP telephony upgrades to its telecommunications system to avoid an impending shutdown. The city council voted to decline a measure that would have allowed officials to purchase the upgrades, and the city has remained without an overarching failure to this date.

However, on Feb. 24 of this year, phones in the city's police department went offline. It took officials half a day to correct the problem. And that repair time, combined with earlier warnings about the robustness of the system as a whole, has Mount Airy IT Manager Debbie Post worried. She says she doesn't know what the city will do if the system fails, and she has recommended to the city council that they allocate $90,000 to fix only the city's internal telephone system, sidestepping for now a complete upgrade to the entire communications grid, which would cost much more.

The current telephone system that connects city offices and operations is based on a private branch exchange network, a system that relies on an internal server that connects office lines in a central location. It was installed 18 years ago, and Post worries that the city won't be able to find parts for the system if it stops working. The upgrade Post suggested would move the city toward a cloud-based system which handles calls through designated IP addresses. The city would be in charge of running software that locally handles call switching, but physical servers that handle the call load would remain in a remote location. This would place repairs in the hands of the hosting company and would assure a more reliable communications system for the city.

Additionally, the cloud hosting company would be in charge of repairing and maintaining its servers. So, city officials wouldn't have to concern themselves with costly upgrades to their communications system either in a few years or in many years. Cloud hosts continually need to keep their systems fresh to cater to the needs of their clients, and clients should expect their hosts to replace outdated servers within reasonable time frames. In this specific case, an upgrade would mean that the city would no longer face being 18 years behind the times, to the point of collapse. The city would benefit from modern technology at all times without the hassle of taking on upgrade projects every election season, and its emergency departments would never have to worry about whether or not their phones would work on any given day.

Post has recommended the project be completed in the 2014-2015 fiscal year, beginning July 1. The city council has not yet voted on the measure. It will consider more aspects of the budget before the close of the current fiscal year

Edited by Alisen Downey
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