Pentagon looks to upgrade its aging videoconferencing infrastructure

I n many federal agencies, video conferencing began to catch on only when travel budgets began to plummet, but in the Pentagon it’s been a mainstay for decades. The downside is that much of the equipment and technology DoD relies on for video teleconferences (VTCs) has been around for decades.

So the outfit that manages most of the Pentagon’s IT, the Army Information Technology Agency (ITA), is starting a pilot program that is examining the possibility of replacing the current infrastructure — which relies on expensive point-to-point ISDN circuits and dedicated, purpose-built appliances — with a software based, IP-based solution.

Tom Sasala, ITA’s chief technology officer, says the agency is looking at multiple software packages right now in the pursuit of a potential everything- over-IP approach. While the Pentagon has been upgrading the equipment within its 584 VTC-equipped conference rooms at a pace of about 20 installations per year, the projects are essentially replacing old equipment with newer versions that still rely on the same legacy technical architecture.

“It costs us between $200,000 and $500,000 to upgrade our VTCs today, because in the end they’re really multimedia renovations in big rooms with mohagany-clad walls, and you have to replace big, big appliances and multiple screens,” Sasala told an IT conference hosted by the Association for Federal Information Resources Management last week.

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“And the users want to be able to push slides, do Web presence and then bridge together telephone calls with VOIP and ISDN, and it’s a very complicated thing. I would be very happy if we could get everything on IP, put a computer in there and just click an icon. But right now we’ve got these consoles that are circa 1980s, and they’re not intuitive,” Sasala said.

They’re also more prone than usual to technical snafus in the middle of massive virtual gatherings of high-level military officials, like the weekly meetings Pentagon-based leaders hold with their senior commanders outside the capital region.

That sort of problem happened just last week, when all of the attendees at the Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, were accidentally dropped from an important call. It turned out that for some reason, the legacy switched circuits the current VTC infrastructure relies on had been routed through Guam, to the displeasure of several officers with multiple stars on their shoulders. “When one of these goes south, it’s a thing,” Sasala said. “It is utterly a thing.”

This post is part of Jared Serbu’s Inside the DoD Reporter’s Notebook feature. Read more from this edition of Jared’s Notebook.

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