Last updated: March 15. 2014 4:12PM - 1130 Views
By - tjoyce@civitasmedia.com

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The situation seemed dire: Mount Airy officials were told that unless they spent nearly $400,000 on a new communications system, city government phones — including emergency lines — could fail on any given day.

That was in 2009, and although the telephone system did not crash as predicted, there is a need now to address problems considered truly pressing with a fix that would cost $90,000, the city board of commissioners has learned.

“I have to be in a kind of disaster-control mode now,” city Information Technology (IT) Manager Debbie Post told the commissioners at a recent city government planning retreat when major equipment needs of municipal departments were outlined.

The main issue with the city’s present telephone system is age — it was installed 18 years ago, which presents problems in getting parts and service when breakdowns occur among the network totaling 150 phones. “In 2013, I really began to worry,” Post said of increasing difficulties in that regard.

“If the system fails right now,” she added of a worst-case scenario, “I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

On Feb. 24, there was a bit of a scare when telephones in the police department went down. And while the problem was corrected by service personnel, “it still took them a half a day to figure out what was going on,” Post said.

In 2009, when only two of the five commissioners now on the board were in office — Dean Brown and Jon Cawley — the council voted 3-2 to delay the purchase of a $378,000 communications system that would have included telephone as well as across-the-board upgrades. A consultant who reportedly was paid $40,000 to study the city’s needs had recommended the major project.

“Doing nothing is really not an option at this point,” Tom Weimin of ClientFirst Consulting Group told city officials in March 2009. “You have to do something.”

However, the board chose not to through its 3-2 vote, with the majority of commissioners reflecting a mindset at that time of delaying any major expenditures due to a tight economic situation.

Both Brown and Cawley voted against the communications upgrade, being joined by Deborah Cochran, who then was a commissioner before she was elected mayor.

Some amusement at the fact that a disaster did not occur was apparent at the recent retreat when the telephone system matter resurfaced, but also a realization that it might finally be time to address the need. Another factor involves the knowledge that the municipality has built up its cash reserves significantly since 2009 and is in a better position to fund such equipment needs.

“What I’m proposing is we just take another look at it,” the IT manager said.

This time around, the commissioners aren’t being asked to allocate funds for a full upgrade that would include the city’s entire communications infrastructure, but just the telephone component with an expected cost of $90,000. That would address the area of greatest vulnerability, according to Post.

“You don’t have to do it all at one time,” she said of overall communications improvements. “I can’t really give you a figure on what this total system would cost.”

Entering The “Cloud”

The plan at hand would involve replacing the old Private Branch Exchange (PBX) telephone system, a network used within a business or government unit, with an IP (Internet Protocol) system.

Post explained that technology has moved toward “cloud-based” communications networks and away from internal server-based operations. The cloud method also employs computer servers, but ones considered more secure and reliable than site-based servers that can fall victim to a variety of issues.

The cloud terminology refers to how such networks are handled through virtual server hardware that is simulated by software running on one or more actual machines rather than real server hardware. This allows greater flexibility and the scaling up and down of the virtual servers, similar to how a cloud can become bigger or smaller without being a tangible object.

“We’re going to have to go into the cloud…eventually,” Post said.

The $90,000 project is proposed for funding in the 2014-2015 fiscal year that begins on July 1.

City officials have made no decision on the telephone system improvement, but will consider it along with other major equipment needs proposed as budget deliberations continue this spring.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

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