City upgrades phone, data systems through ePlus, Cisco

Published 10:42 am Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Teresa L. Rose-McQuay, who is the administrative assistant for human resources and receptionist for the city’s administration, works on the old phone system. Recently, it has created concerns as city residents have not been able to call in. -- Cain Madden | Tidewater News

Teresa L. Rose-McQuay, who is the administrative assistant for human resources and receptionist for the city’s administration, works on the old phone system. Recently, it has created concerns as city residents have not been able to call in. — Cain Madden | Tidewater News

In 45-60 days, City Manager Randy Martin will finally be able to get some sleep. But that sleep will come at a steep price, almost $500,000 to be paid over a five-year period.

Over the past few months, upgrading the phone and data system at City Hall and other city offices has gone from a priority to ticking-time-bomb-level critical, Martin said.

A few months ago, the city discovered that the 12-year-old phone network was not holding up. People were calling, and it often wouldn’t ring on the city’s end. People would get disconnected from the switchboard. The system had been allowing users to call out as normal, so officials and employees only thought that their call volume had gone down.

The previous system was installed by Alcatel-Lucent, a French company. The company, which was young at the time of the install, is not really in the phone business in the United States anymore. Even though the city is paying for an extended warranty contract, they were not really getting much out of it.

Parts and engineers for the old system are difficult to find and expensive, and they have only been able to fix the system for a short period before problems returned.

“I admit that I’m not sleeping good with the level of vulnerability that we are in,” Martin said. “It could go down at any time.”

Because of that, he recommended that council approve a lease contract with ePlus, which would install a Cisco phone and data system, at a cost of $438,020.30 over the next five years, starting in the 2015-16 fiscal year.

“If we go into a lease term for something that ends after five years, it’s almost like going into perpetual debt,” Ward 2 councilman Benny Burgess said. “In this case, I don’t think we have an option. Unfortunately, I think leasing is probably our only option.

“I just want to remind council that we have been very financially astute in the way we have managed debt and done things. I want to make sure that we take a look at it in five years, and really look at what our options are.”

Ward 3 councilman Greg McLemore also had some concerns. First, he wanted to make sure that the maintenance contract would actually cover all conditions over the next five years. That ePlus wouldn’t essentially installs it and leave the city on its own, short of paying for additional support.

Martin said that over the next five years, at no extra cost, they will come down however many times necessary.

Bruce Edwards, who is the communications director for the Franklin Police Department, added that a lot of what they do will be “tunneling in.” That means that when there is a problem, the engineers will gain access to a computer and work on it remotely while the city employee watches.

“The good thing about that is you learn while you see them do it, and maybe you will be able to do it on your own next time,” Edwards said.

McLemore was also worried about training. What if Edwards or IT specialist Steve Newsome left the city?

“That’s a good question because it’s sort of the situation we are in now,” Edwards said. “When Alcatel was installed, they trained two to three people. And over the years, they are all gone.”

However, the good thing about a Cisco system is that it’s the No. 1 company businesses and government sources use, so if someone leaves it’s easier to make sure that the next person hired is Cisco-certified, Edwards said.

Mary Broome, the sales associate with ePlus, said that if the city did not wish to hire another IT specialist, the company had a solution. For an additional fee, ePlus could do it remotely or by sending someone from its Richmond office as required.

When questioned about how this might affect the school system, Edwards said the division was asked if it wanted to go in with the city. However, the Franklin City Public School division is already far enough along with an upgrade of its own.

He also talked about how it would connect with the new 911 phone system. Currently, the Alcatel network has been causing problems with the non-emergency lines. When the system calls out to order a wrecker or the Nightingale service, the network doesn’t release that call within the system.

While the lines are open, the network didn’t show it as open, so when people call the non-emergency number, it sometimes gives the busy signal.

“Eventually, someone was going to call the 911 system and ask what’s the matter,” Edwards said.

An approximately $5,000 carousel will be purchased in the same order to interface between the two systems, so he said they would be good once the network is up and running.

Martin said that at the end of the lease contract there would be the option to buy the equipment at a depreciated amount. The phone system might still be meeting its purpose in five years.

On the other hand, should some of the server equipment be outdated, leasing gives the city some advantages in making upgrades, Martin said.

It also does mean that the city has to review it in five years.

“We can’t kick the can down the road, which is essentially what happened here,” Martin said. “In five years, we will have a full range of options.”

He added, “It has been a trend for cities to lease technology because of how quickly some of it goes obsolete. That’s an attractive part of that.”

McLemore also thought the city needed to do more due diligence on the system, since some local cities, including Suffolk and Virginia Beach, recently switched over.

“We’re kind of going in blind unless we have talked to somebody — somebody who has driven the car before,” the councilman said. “They can let us know if it is a good ride, if it is a bad ride, or if it breaks down every 10 minutes.”

Martin asked council to proceed, saying that he would not execute the contract until he had spoken to representatives about the phone system.

“If anything gives me pause, we can call an emergency meeting,” he said.

With a 6-0 vote, the city council gave the city manager the authority to do just that. Mayor Raystine Ashburn-Johnson was absent.

“Now our city manager can sleep at night,” Burgess said. “We had been worried about the bags under his eyes.”