Or so says the manager of telephone services for the City of Seattle, Stephanie Venrick. What she’s referring to, of course, is that when you pick up a telephone, the dial tone is … well … there. You don’t think about, you just dial. On the other hand, mobile phone users can’t take connectivity for granted. Cell signals come and go, even with companies who promise “more bars in more places” (and they are not talking about building prisons!) Yet we expect the old-fashioned “wired” telephone to deliver dial-tone and connect phone calls day-in, day-out, without fail.
But providing that dial tone is not easy. Stephanie manages a group of about 30 skilled technology people who build, install and maintain the internal City of Seattle phone system of 23 large switches, more than 100 smaller switches, 11,000 phones, 7,000 voicemail boxes and other services such as interactive voice response (Press “1” for this, press “2” for that).
At first thought, you might ask “why does a City government have its own phone system”? But, as a matter of fact, most large organizations, corporations and public agencies have their own internal telephone systems because it is cheaper and more reliable to operate such systems than to procure services from a public telecommunications company.
For a City government, it’s also a case of disaster preparedness. The public phone system gets overloaded during earthquakes and on Mothers’ Day and, even, gee, when the Seattle Mariners’ tickets for the World Series go on sale (as if that will ever happen!) Especially during disasters such as terrorist incidents or earthquakes, the public cell and land-line networks are vastly overloaded. With the City operating its own telephone network, City functions and facilities can still operate and coordinate our internal response to the disaster.
Doing all of this should be easy, right? After all, it is basically two telephone sets with copper wire in between – just one step up from the two-tin-cans and string phones we played with as kids?
Alas, just as the two-tin-cans toy for kiddos has been replaced with the high-tech Xbox 360 and Wii, so has delivering basic dial tone been replaced with the marvels of technologies such as fiber optic cable, voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP), and complex automatic call distribution systems.
Today large portions of the City’s phone system rides on the City government’s internal Internet, traveling on the same pathways as public safety radio transmissions and computer-to-computer traffic.
While more complicated, this set of networks gives us quite a bit more flexibility because the City government owns and manages its own services. W ith the IVR (interactive voice response), for example, City customers can get the balance on their electric bill, or pay their water bill or even pay a parking ticket with a credit card. We can highly customize distribution of phone calls, so that customers rapidly reach a city employee/specialist to answer specific questions or render service.
Putting telephone, data, radio all on the same fiber network saves taxpayers a lot of money when you are connecting 11,000 employees to 600,000 Seattle residents scattered across 142 square miles (40% of that being water) with many lakes, rivers, hills and a ship canal to provide additional challenges to making this one of the most “wired” cities.
Yes, Dial Tone does come from God, or at least the City of Seattle, but only with the help of a lot of angels in the guise of the City employees named “Telephone Services”.
P.S. The City of Seattle is one of the very few governments or corporations to put a phone directory of almost all its employees’ on the web. Click here to see it.