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Telecom Solutions: Government agencies and utilities take steps to streamline operations

October 31, 2012
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With the aim of enhancing transparency and accountability, government bodies are shifting from a traditional paper-based system to a fully automated set-up. Today, telecom tools are being increasingly used in the governance process, not only to perform key functions but also to provide information in a structured manner.

Basic telephony has been used by government entities for a long time. Advanced communication mediums, which were introduced in a small way in the mid-1990s, are being used at every level of functioning, from maintaining network connectivity and uptime to setting up systems for processing information and delivering services.

Today, several technologies are being used. Most government departments have an internet protocol (IP)-based wide area network (WAN), which provides broadband connectivity as well as voice and data services on one platform. It facilitates information flow, supports the use of spatial and geospatial technologies, and facilitates the use of remote sensing satellite images for inventory and mapping of resources. It also supports technologies such as geographic information system (GIS).

Moreover, tools such as leased lines, videoconferencing, very small aperture terminals (VSATs), ISDN, IP-virtual private networks (IP-VPNs) and multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) are being widely used for improving connectivity. VSATs, VoIP and videoconferencing are typically used to establish connectivity with remote locations.

IP-VPNs allow uninterrupted information flow, which is critical for operations. Also, IP-VPNs are cost effective and provide a high level of security through advanced encryption and authentication protocols. Most stelecom olutions used by the government departments and utilities are scalable.

For last mile connectivity, government bodies typically opt for technologies like radio frequency (RF), Wi-Fi and optical fibre cable (OFC).

Applications such as SAP, enterprise resource planning (ERP), supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and supply chain management (SCM) are also being increasingly deployed. ERP tools provide the organisations an end-to-end view across departments, and make relevant data and information available to key personnel in different parts of the country.

Similarly, SCADA provides benefits such as minimising the time for fault response, reducing downtime, accurately identifying and isolating network faults, and reducing costs.

For disaster recovery, mediums such as mirror servers, a disaster recovery site and data centres are used. The typical functions of a data centre in this context are ensuring server uptime and network security, and reducing downtime.

Also, several telecom-related initiatives have been launched at the state level. For example, the National Informatics Centre, Goa, has implemented the Dharani II project, which is aimed at computerising all land records in the state. The services offered under the project include the Dharani Rural and Dharani Urban textual web-based solutions, conversion of the land records of all 12 talukas to UNICODE and digital crop survey.

Similarly, telecom is playing a key role in the daily operations of oil, gas, and water utilities. These companies are shifting from simple voice applications to advanced video technologies. For instance, satellite communication and microwave technologies are being used for remote office connectivity.

Inmarsat is among the other major technologies that are being used by these entities. It is, however, being used mostly as backup due to the high associated costs.

Going forward, technologies such as management information system (MIS), energy management system, cloud computing, IP 6 servers, enterprise single sign on and storage solutions are expected to witness increased adoption.

Therefore, government agencies and utilities have been deploying various IT and telecom technologies to improve connectivity, reduce paperwork and increase operational efficiency.

tele.net undertook a survey among leading power, water, oil and gas utilities, as well as government departments to assess their telecom requirements and solutions, key concerns and future requirements. The following questions were asked in the survey:

• What are the organisation’s key technology requirements?

• What mix of service providers and vendors is being used?

• What are the biggest concerns with respect to telecom infrastructure?

• What are some of the mobility and enterprise applications implemented by the organisation?

• Which network security tools has the organisation adopted?

• What redundancy tools are being utilised?

• Which new product or service holds the most interest and relevance for the organisation?

Key technology requirements

The survey results indicate that telecom has permeated every level of functioning in government departments and utilities. The main requirement of this vertical is telecom infrastructure that offers optimal security, allows remote access to all users and ensures effective service delivery to end consumers.

To achieve these goals, the respondents use technologies like leased lines, OFC networks, RF, local area networks (LANs), MPLS and VSATs.

Of these, leased lines, MPLS, RF and OFC are the most widely deployed technologies. According to the survey, most of these technologies are used either as stand-alone mediums or in conjunction with wireless connectivity solutions.

For example, Tata Power uses an MPLS-based WAN to connect its offices and remote project sites. The bandwidth of this MPLS network ranges from 2 Mbps to 100 Mbps, depending on the company’s requirement. For last mile access, LAN or Wi-Fi connectivity is used, depending on the business requirement, with end-point and gateway-level IT security.

In addition, the power major uses an OFC-based ring topology across Mumbai, which has gigabit bandwidth.

Madhya Pradesh Poorv Kshetra Vidyut Vitaran Company Limited (MPPKVVCL) uses MPLS as WAN links for connecting network servers and its collection kiosks to servers.

Meanwhile, the Cochin Port Trust prefers to use leased lines. The medium offers the port permanent, reliable and high speed connectivity.

Delhi Transco Limited (DTL), the Bangalore Electricity Supply Company (BESCOM), the Income Tax Department, the Kandla Port Trust (KPT) and BSES Delhi use a multi-tiered communication infrastructure. DTL has set up extensive data communications infrastructure to interconnect its offices and 29 substations. The network has deployed multiple communication mediums, including OFC networks, radio communication and leased lines.

BESCOM uses MPLS in conjunction with leased lines for data connectivity. The network extends to some of its rural offices as well. BESCOM uses wireless communication mediums for last mile access. According to the respondent, the project is 90 per cent complete. The company’s WAN components comprise routers, switches and modems, and OFCs and copper cables.

BSES has about 350 offices connected 24x7 to the central database through leased lines, ISDN, RF, VSAT, etc. These links have been provided by Reliance Communications (RCOM), Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL), Bharti Airtel, Tulip Telecom, Hughes Communications, etc. The company’s offices use the services of multiple operators in various combinations, based on their requirement and criticality of the network. The bandwidth of the connectivity mediums ranges from 32 kbps to 10 Mbps.

The Income Tax Department uses ISDN and leased lines. ISDNs facilitate multi-tasking and the simultaneous use of telephones and web surfing. Leased lines have been a cost-effective solution for the department as they have helped in prioritising network traffic.

KPT’s communications set-up comprises leased lines, the internet, VSATs and ISDN lines. For last mile connectivity, the port uses DSL and Wi-Fi.

Several respondents have established a data centre as well. DTL has an in-house Tier 3 corporate data centre at its Delhi office, which hosts more than 30 servers that are operational 24x7. MPPKVVCL has a data centre in place for ensuring server uptime, data recovery and backup, storage management, etc.

Several IT tools and applications are being used as well. For example, BSES uses SAP, Esri’s GIS, a SCADA system provided by ABB, an in-house outage management system and IBM’s Domino. In the past year, the utility has extended its communication systems by introducing various network value-added services.

BESCOM uses several Oracle-based applications to streamline business processes while DTL utilises a SAP-ERP system and has constituted a dedicated division to support ERP-based solutions. The company has implemented a complete ERP package, which includes material management, financial controlling, human capital management, plant management, project systems, document management system, industry solutions for utilities, business intelligence and dashboards, employee portal and supplier relationship management solutions.

MPPKVVCL uses 29 servers for low tension billing and six servers for high tension billing.

Service providers and vendors

Government agencies and utilities use the services of IT and telecom service providers such as Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), Tata Communications, Bharti Airtel, Tata Teleservices Limited, MTNL, RCOM, Hughes Communications India Limited, Wipro, IBM, Oracle, Ericsson, Alcatel-Lucent and Sify Technologies Limited.

Issues and concerns

Implementing the latest technology, identifying an appropriate service provider, maintaining uniformity across the network at all locations, network downtime and integration of various technologies are the key concerns faced by these organisations.

For BESCOM, using “information” as a resource and implementing the latest technologies are key challenges. “Adopting a new technology is challenging as it requires understanding for its efficient use,” says the respondent.

For Tata Power, identifying an appropriate operator is a major issue. “We need a service provider that has extensive experience in the implementation of communication networks and can build the network within our cost structure,” explains the company respondent.

Mobile and enterprise applications

The surveyed companies are using several enterprise applications, including web hosting, videoconferencing, instant messaging, toll-free services, VoIP as well as  audioconferencing. Mobile data connectivity, corporate intranet and mobile conferencing are the most widely used mobile applications. For instance, DTL provides mobile computing facilities in the form of laptops to executives till the manager level.

Network redundancy

For backup requirements, government agencies and utilities use mirror servers, disaster recovery sites, firewalls, storage area network  systems and security operation control centres.

Tata Power has disaster recovery data centres at various seismic zones, which function as mirror sites. Any transaction at the company’s primary data centre is immediately replicated at the disaster recovery site. Therefore, instantaneous recovery of data in the case of a network slowdown is possible.

Network security

The companies surveyed use multiple mediums to secure their networks. For example, DTL has deployed state-of-the-art enterprise-class, double-layer perimeter security, using Cisco ASA security appliances with intrusion detection and prevention systems deployed in high-availability mode to deliver optimal throughput and performance. BESCOM uses the Symantec Antivirus and Juniper Firewall systems.

The way forward

Most respondents intend to strengthen their telecom networks over the next year. BESCOM, for instance, has multiple plans. “We plan to implement a web-based management information system (MIS) application to use smartphones in data management and for effective communication;  train  all officials on computer operations; as well as digitise our data,” says the respondent.

A web-based MIS would help in ensuring improved data management and organisational control. The utility will also provide smartphones to its field staff for entering data. Digitisation of data is also on the agenda. So far, the company has digitised around 100,000 files at the corporate office. This initiative is aimed at increasing transparency and accountability in administration.

DTL also has an elaborate plan to strengthen operations. “We will implement automated metering at all power transaction points; deploy a backup facility for the state load despatch centre (SLDC) for disaster recovery; and replace/upgrade the SCADA and energy management system,” says the company respondent. The company also plans to integrate the distribution companies’ SCADA networks with the SLDC for improved monitoring and compliance with grid standards; replace its legacy power line carrier communication-based communication system with an OFC network; undertake GIS mapping of sites; and deploy an equipment information management system and an e-procurement system, which is likely to start in 2013.

Tata Power is looking to use the enterprise single sign on and the single identity management platforms; email solutions that offer infinite storage and ensure email continuity in the case of a disaster; enterprise storage solutions with infinite access for corporate purposes; and GIS.

According to Rajiv Chawla, general manager, information systems, Indian Oil Corporation Limited, the company is exploring the option of selecting an alternative service provider for all locations and migrate to the IPv6 platform.

In sum, the use of telecom has helped government agencies and utilities streamline operations, and ensure transparency in their processes

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