As a growing number of state, county and municipal governments consider adopting “N-1-1” programs — such as community referral services (2-1-1), non-emergency services (3-1-1) and traffic information (5-1-1) — they must decide which communications infrastructure will best fit their needs. Many governments have discovered that Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) and IP Telephony (IPT) can help create cost-effective, adaptable systems by carrying calls and call center functions over an integrated voice and data network.

N-1-1 programs arose from the success of 9-1-1 emergency hotlines. Governments realized that a non-emergency call center with a short, easy-to-remember phone number could help residents access a range of local services. Ideally, residents no longer need to navigate a maze of agencies or make as many face-to-face appointments.

However, call centers built with traditional private branch exchange (PBX) phone systems have limitations. With a traditional analog or digital PBX telephone system, each call center operates independently with its own call-routing rules and interactive voice response (IVR) system. The government also pays extra tolls, which can include long distance, each time a call is routed over public phone lines. Relying on traditional call center technology requires agencies to manage separate networks for voice and data at each site.

With VoIP and IPT, however, all N-1-1 call centers in a city or county can be connected by one network that provides both voice and data services. Voice traffic is carried over IP, so phone calls and service center functions can be routed to any location with access to the network. A single call queue and a single IVR system can support the entire N-1-1 service, so residents only have to enter their information once, and their call is immediately routed to the right location. Because calls are transferred over the data network — not the public phone network — agencies eliminate extra tolls. All departments and call centers combined become a single “virtual” call center that allows governments to distribute call loads across multiple locations, and add new departments and services as needs change.

Texas' 2-1-1 program, launched in 2002, connects residents to more than 200,000 community and social services. Serving more than 22 million people across a vast geographic region required more than one 2-1-1 center, so Texas used VoIP and IPT to integrate 25 existing regional information centers into one virtual call center. Today, Texas residents who need social services can call 2-1-1 from anywhere in the state and connect with local organizations.

By using VoIP, Texas reduced statewide toll costs for community referral services and gained flexibility to manage call center staff and resources. Call centers across the state can help respond to an emergency, such as a hurricane, that drives up demand for 2-1-1 services in one area. If a storm takes one call center offline, calls are immediately routed to other agents across the state.

Growth in N-1-1 services is likely to continue. Although the programs may be a novelty at first, residents eventually will expect access to them. By considering the uses for the programs now and how they might change, governments can choose the best infrastructure for their long-term N-1-1 investment.

The author is customer solutions manager, Internet Business Solutions Group, for San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco Systems.