Within a year, the state of Alaska will have one of the most modern telecommunications systems in the country. That’s according to officials from Alaska Communications Systems, which won the contract to install the new network.The $92 million, five-year State of Alaska Telecom Partnering Agreement, as it’s formally known, was signed Dec. 10 and officially went into effect April 1.ACS, however, had been designing the network even before it won the contract and spent $17 million on the project last year, according to Mary Ann Pease, ACS vice president of investor relations. That’s because it was something the company was planning to do anyway because there was a business case for it, she said.The state contract just speeded up the process, said Jeff Tyson, ACS vice president and the man in charge of building the network. "The state acted as our anchor tenant," he said."This is the benefit of a true partnering agreement," Tyson added. "Instead of the state investing in its own, smaller network, we’re taking fewer dollars and provided them a big network. It gives ACS a network deployment sooner than we would have otherwise."Tyson has a big job ahead of him. The state’s telecommunications infrastructure consists of thousands of phone lines and data circuits installed over the years by different departments.It also includes a videoconferencing system, a network of microwave towers, pagers and cellular phones, and the ARCS TV system for the Bush and its more than 230 satellite earth stations. Even satellite phones for state employees in remote areas are part of the contract.Contract includes everything from telephones to satellitesBy the Journal StaffAccording to Alaska Communications Systems officials, the services ACS must provide to the state are divided into 10 groups. They include:wired telephony, to include telephones, voice mail, long distance, calling cards and audio conferencing;data services, in the form of a single statewide digital network and including Internet access;videoconferencing, which will involve upgrading 14 sites currently operated by the University of Alaska;pagers;cellular telephones;broadcast of the ARCS TV system;providing a help desk and service center;maintaining the state microwave communications system;providing satellite telephones; and maintaining more than 230 earth stations in rural Alaska used to receive the ARCS broadcasts. Since the contract was signed late last year, ACS has been in what Tyson called the "ramp up" phase, getting its new network in place and beginning to identify exactly what services already exist.On April 1, a transition period began with ACS taking over all state services as they currently exist. Then, on July 1, a nine-month "transformation" phase will begin, as ACS begins changing out existing equipment and moving services to the new network."By April 1, 2003, we’ll be done," Tyson said. "The entire state will essentially be on one network."Larry Walsh, director of the state Department of Administration’s Information Technology Group, is the person in charge of making sure ACS complies with the contract. "It’s a big cultural change for both the state and ACS," he said. "As we change our roles, there will probably be some bumps and issues we’ll need to work through. By and large, we’re working well together."Walsh said the contract has penalties in case ACS fails to meet certain deadlines, but it also has incentives for early deployment, and for new ideas. "The contract encourages ACS to offer efficiencies," he said.Walsh said he was probably more "anxious and excited" about April 1, 2003, than he was about April 1, 2002. That’s because next year the new network is scheduled to be complete.Just what kind of network is this, anyway? For one thing, it’s not a telephone network. It’s more like a customized, souped-up private version of the Internet. The telephones, for instance, use a technology called "Voice over IP," with IP standing for Internet protocol.When a state worker places a phone call on the new network, the system figures out the entire route and makes sure there’s enough bandwidth to provide a good connection. "It allows us to guarantee a quality of service," Tyson said. That’s a far cry from the garbled, low-quality voice and video transmissions often found on the Internet.The system can also handle multiple kinds of traffic at once, including data and video. It’s what Tyson called the "Holy Grail" of telecommunications networks.The advantage of this kind of arrangement is lower operating costs. For one thing, it will allow every state employee to call every other state office without incurring long-distance charges. "Over the next five years, that’s a savings of millions of dollars," Walsh said.It also means there’s just one wire coming out of the wall. A state employee simply plugs his or her phone into the wall, and then plugs a desktop computer into the phone. As soon as employees log in, they instantly have telephone, data, Internet, e-mail, access to their office network and access to any other big state computer they’re authorized to use.As any company that has paid to have a network installed will tell you, having just one cable for all services will save money. "That’s a big cost savings in the long run," Tyson said.Walsh said the first state building to have its services on the network is the new Anchorage Jail, which was wired for it from the ground up and which is serving as a pilot site for the statewide deployment. "It’s working great," he said.Because it’s all one big network, more savings occur whenever employees move from one office to another for whatever reason. Any authorized user can simply log in at a new desk and have all telephone features, including voice mail messages, e-mail and network access move with them.Tyson said that the network features extensive security features to prevent unauthorized access, and that its design as a private network makes such access difficult to begin. "We’re very aware of the security concerns," he said.So ACS, which traces its roots back nearly a century as a traditional telephone company, has chosen to build a network based instead on Internet technology. As Pease pointed out, a big reason for the decision was to be able to offer services at reduced costs and thus be competitive.Pease said that already, ACS has gained another customer for its new network, connecting the U.S. Department of the Interior with the Lower 48. She said ACS is currently negotiating to expand that contract to include more in-state services for the department.The other big reason for the nontraditional approach has to do with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which mandated local telephone competition. Under its terms, ACS was required to sell its services to competitor General Communication Inc. at discounted rates.GCI has since gained significant market share in the phone business, and ACS has protested, with little success, that it is being forced to provide its services to the competition at below cost. It’s a claim GCI has strongly disputed, but clearly ACS has been hurt. ACS reported a net loss of $11.2 million for 2001, following a loss of $25.2 million in 2000.None of these rules apply to the new network, however. "It’s Internet," Pease said. "It’s not regulated."