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Microsoft for Public Safety & National Security

Secure UC now and then: The changing landscape and unique challenges of a modern technology

30 May 2013 | Mahesh Punyamurthula , Worldwide Industry Technology Strategist

Tom Guthrie has more than 20 years of management experience in technology engineering and operations for a wide variety of service providers. His company’s patented WAVE software, currently deployed by all branches of the U.S. military and a growing number of coalition forces, enables existing infrastructure to expand and securely transmit critical voice and data for secure, real-time collaboration anywhere, on any device, for maximum interoperability that eliminates line of sight and system incompatibly issues.

In this interview, we talked with Tom about the transformation of unified communications, the unique needs of public safety and national defense organizations, and his vision for the future. This is part one of a three-part series.

Twisted Pair was founded in 1999, nearly 15 years ago. What’s changed about secure unified communications (UC) since then?

Well, first of all, the term “unified communication” wasn’t a well-known term in the public sector 15 years ago. It started as more of an enterprise capability, and unified communications was synonymous with unifying devices to one phone number. Now, we’ve expanded that definition to be more collaborative in nature. We want to not only reach people with one number, but we want to be able to text them, share images, see status updates, and more. These are capabilities we’re just now starting to see in the public sector.

How do the needs of public sector needs differ from other enterprises?

Within public sector, secure UC users have many different roles – such as defense, tactical operations, national security, which is primarily covered by federal organizations, and state and local, which covers the first responders and the public safety side. Each of these environments is a bit different. But what is unique to the public sector is that they are all heavy users of their own private communications systems, especially for their mobile workforces.

The commercial information workers that sit at desks and carry around laptops or tablets probably rarely, if ever, use push to talk radio, but that is something very prevalent in the public sector. Public sector systems are private, standalone communications systems. Unified communication, from a Lync perspective, provides a voice platform to connect to private systems – but still needs to bridge to the radio devices that are critical to the public sector. That bridging, or extending systems , is exactly what Twisted Pair is focused on providing.

What are you hearing from customers about their challenges that are unique to them in the public sector?

There are two themes: One is they have spent quite a bit of money in the past to develop unique, private communications systems that are specific to their needs – but most of them are not IP based at all, and there’s not a natural way to include them into the realm of unified communication. So the first thing we try to address with our software is a way to try to bridge those capabilities.

Imagine a situation where you’re sitting at a laptop, at your desk like we are, you can pull up Lync client and see an individual and their availability – I can call them, send a text, and see their status. But you need to be able to reach past that, and see where are my mobile workers – my soldier, my officer, my covert operative in the field – and I communicate with them. They may be using a device that’s running on a private network. Our challenge to address has been how do we include them and provide that interoperability. “How do I make this radio system interoperable within IP-based Lync?” That’s the first question – the inclusion within unified communications.

The second theme is the intersection of budget restrictions with the advancement of available devices. One of the things we hear from users is “Why do my officers have less communication capability than my 13-year-old daughter on her smartphone?” There are capabilities being driven by the Consumerization of IT, and that’s being met at the same time with budgets that simply don’t support building brand new systems exactly to our specification. So the question becomes how can we better leverage commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology into our environment. It boils down to one, how can we include all those systems we already have that are specialized, secure and used only by users in the public sector, and two, now that new capabilities are available through smart phones and tablets and other devices, how can I securely include them in my operations?

Do you see the arrangement between private standalone systems and the broader technology evolving, or do you think we’ll always have that arrangement based on the specialized security requirements of the defense and public safety communities?

The answer to that varies depending on the situation. Tactical defense is probably always going to need very specialized, very rugged communications systems to some degree. They have to literally bring their own communication systems with them – I don’t see a front line warfighter carrying an iPhone in a tactical situation. COTS isn’t a plug-and-play solution in that environment.

An important distinction to make here is that UC has traditionally been about how individuals communicate with each other. Public sector mobile workers need to talk to their teams – they have standing conference calls, open channels of communication, where they need to talk to everyone at once. That is what is emulated by a push-to-talk radio system, a group communication. That’s been our focus – how to bring this new mode of team communications into unified communication. It will always be a mix.

For example, an Army on a base operates like a small town, and it looks more public safety oriented. You have multiple network options, multiple cellular companies; you may have private Wi-Fi or other systems. So if you’re not in a mission role, and not operating in an extreme environment, a traditional smartphone may be an option. If you’re in a special ops or a national security role, though, and your operation is covert, you have much different needs. You need to dress like one of us. You need to go through airport security in a foreign country and drop your mobile device in the scanner and not be recognized as something special.  You have to take each situation and each role independently. That’s why these agencies really need choices.

People in admin roles or that are off duty or traveling, that’s where we’re starting to look at the opportunity to fit those personnel with a COTS device and use the software and application to include that device in secure communication. Being a very specialized piece of hardware, it can look to perform the same function securely as an application on a computing device, whether that’s a laptop or a smartphone or a tablet.  That’s our focus; how to leverage the devices into roles appropriate to their mission.

Next: Q&A with Tom Guthrie – Part 2: The role of secure UC for covert operations and international organizations.

To ask questions, share ideas, or receive more information, please contact us at safetyanddefense@microsoft.com or @MicrosoftPSNS.

Mahesh Punyamurthula
Worldwide Industry Technology Strategist

Microsoft on Safety and Defense Blog

About the Author

Mahesh Punyamurthula | Worldwide Industry Technology Strategist

Mahesh Punyamurthula has 17+ years of evangelism, architecture, and software development experience with Microsoft platforms and technologies. He has also managed technical relationships with several global safety and defense partners.