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Tinker installation commander dials up pressure on phone transition

Tommy Smith of the 72nd Air Base Wing Communications Directorate demonstrates a phone call over Voice Over Internet Protocol services here at Tinker. The VoIP system allows users to communicate through a headset through Internet systems as opposed to desktop phones. (Air Force photo by Kelly White)

Tommy Smith of the 72nd Air Base Wing Communications Directorate demonstrates a phone call over Voice Over Internet Protocol services here at Tinker. The VoIP system allows users to communicate through a headset through Internet systems as opposed to desktop phones. (Air Force photo by Kelly White)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Get ready for a big change coming to a Tinker AFB desk phone near you.

It's so big that in a few years thousands of Tinker military and civilian office workers could be saying goodbye to the familiar curly-corded handset plopped next to their computers to replace it with a 21st-century desk phone or a phone connected to their computer that does the same thing and more.

Col. Christopher Azzano, 72nd Air Base Wing and Tinker installation commander, recently upped the sense of urgency for all units to plan ahead for the Air Force transition from analog phones to Internet-based phones.

The current phone system is reaching the end of its technological life and has become too expensive to maintain or replace an April 24 memo by the colonel said. If an office needs a new phone, or is relocating to a new location, the phone system needs to be digital and connected to the base computer network.

"Our Communications Directorate can no longer approve requests to relocate existing analog phones or requests to install new analog phones," Colonel Azzano wrote.

The new digital phone system is based on VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), which converts sound to data carried over the base data network. The base's analog phones and their switching technology -- currently used by about 90 percent of Tinker's units -- don't work with VoIP.

For the first time in decades, Tinker units will be required to tap their budgets, with no extra funds designated, for new phone systems to be in place by Dec. 31, 2017. Despite the time frame, Tinker's VoIP experts urge units to begin the change as soon as possible.

The transition will involve disconnecting analog wires and equipment and switching to the installation of the digital system. Each office must also decide between buying new digital desktop phones or switching to a computer-based system that uses an attached headset for phone calls.

Only about 2,500 Tinker workers have switched over so far -- roughly 10 percent of about 25,000 customers who will be moving to VoIP, said Jeff Wagner, a 72nd Air Base Wing, Communications Directorate project manager.

The cost savings for headset versus desktop phone is substantial; approximately 50% savings, Mr. Wagner said.

Besides lower prices, digital headsets offer more advantages, said Scott Peters, Communications Directorate project manager. An attached headset turns a laptop into a mobile work phone that can operate worldwide with an internet connection, he said.
With no physical phone, offices will also have one less piece of equipment to worry about, he said. Headsets are not accountable inventory.

The switch to digital, however, will represent a significant culture change, officials said. Instead of picking up a phone receiver or headset, computer users will see a pop-up notice and/or hear a ring for an incoming call.

The software "phone," however, will look familiar. A visual representation of a desk phone with a receiver, function buttons, etc., will appear on a computer user's screen to make calls, etc.

Most employees will be encouraged to switch to software-based phones, officials said. Physical desktop phones may be desirable in shop locations where several people use the same phone. The software-based phone is the DoD-preferred solution.

Mr. Wagner said he wasn't sure about the headset phones when he started using one two years ago.

"At first, I didn't really want it," he said. "If you asked me, I would rather have had a desk phone, but it didn't take long and now I prefer the headset. I'm not even interested in a desk phone anymore."

Plans and Programs Branch Chief Randy Childress said digital communications and getting away from desk phones is the "wave of the future." He and his co-workers are dealing with outdated copper systems as much as four decades old.

"Technology is quickly changing for business operations and Tinker must migrate to internet based services," Mr. Childress said. "Current analog desk phones won't be supportable for much longer."