An 11-year milestone: Fermilab VOIP telephone system now fully operational

Liz Sexton-Kennedy

The lab reached an important milestone in September. The 1980s-era telephony system was finally replaced by modern voice over IP technology, known as VOIP. This effort loosely began back in 2009 with a small pilot project and has expanded to include more than 4,000 phones, which were converted to VOIP functionality. The milestone came just at the right time for a workforce that suddenly had to transition to working remotely.

Though extremely reliable, the old system required an entire room and several banks of batteries to operate. In 2012, our telephone provider announced they were moving away from the old switching technology by 2020, so we had to formulate a plan to migrate off this technology. Adding urgency to this endeavor, a 2017 quote from the provider indicated that if the lab must use the old system beyond 2020, our current discounts would no longer apply and that the costs for continued service would be at tariff rates. Simply put, our annual operational cost would increase from $750,000 to $9.75 million.

The VOIP initiative began back in 2009 with a pilot that provided opportunity to build the necessary VOIP knowledge and experience to form a more comprehensive site plan to replace the existing telephony system. From 2010 to 2016, several studies were conducted and plans developed to move the lab toward VOIP. In 2017, the plan was approved for funding. The final push was a nearly year-long process, from the request for proposal to construction, which included installing 4,000 additional copper lines and fiber at several sites.

The new VOIP system provides capabilities to support a more mobile workforce, including call forwarding via a webpage or a soft phone client, the enabling of employees to receive lab-related calls on their computers or mobile devices without forwarding to their own cell phones, and employee access to their lab voicemail and instant-messenger tools. New servers were installed specifically to allow users to securely connect to our new phone system without needing to VPN. Now, as long as the employee can log onto a network — whether at home, at a hotel or at Starbucks — they can access Cisco Jabber on their device and therefore have their office phone and lab IM client with them.

Project achievements include:

  • Over 4,000 phones were converted to VOIP.
  • New, upgraded networks were installed at Aspen East, Site 55, Site 56, and Site 58.
  • The phone infrastructure was moved outside of IERC construction area, allowing that project to continue.
  • More than 34 new uninterruptible power supplies were installed throughout the site, improving network resiliency in case of power outages.
  • New dual and geographically diverse fiber paths for telephony were installed.
  • Over 1,600 soft phones were deployed to cover employees working remotely due to COVID-19.
  • Cisco Jaber instant messenger was made available to all users with a Services account, providing intralab instant messaging.

I thank the many individuals and groups from across the lab who made this project a reality. This work included staff from diverse disciplines, including science, safety, networking and telecommunications, supplier management, site facilities and building management, communications, engineering, desktop support and engineering, our managed services supplier and Service Desk, housing, and more. And, of course, none of this would have been possible without the support of the Finance Section, Procurement Department and lab management, who ensured that funding was available, contracts were executed, payments were made and the DOE was kept informed.

Liz Sexton-Kennedy is the Fermilab chief information officer.