What could a college campus possibly have in common with a health insurer's operation centers? Very little, but a telecommunication technology common throughout college campuses has improved one health insurer's business.Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania (BCNEPA), a health insurance provider with its headquarters, an operation center and a technology center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., recently saw growth in its employee base; so much so, that its 20-MB-per-second, point-to-point corporate network link was not handling the workload between headquarters and the operation center.

The IT team at BCNEPA supports 300 servers, a mainframe, two RS/6000 servers and the computing needs of about 1,000 employees.

After reaching the conclusion that more bandwidth was needed to increase network performance, BCNEPA decided to install a 1-GB Synchronous Optical NETwork (SONET) ring, consisting of a fiber ring connecting multiple nodes that each send, receive and relay messages through an add-drop-multiplexer. This system allows inter-country networks to operate synchronously, reducing the amount of buffering required between each element in the network.

However, contractors would require months to complete the installation. BCNEPA wanted a solution during that downtime, so it took its concerns to The Presidio Corp., a Colmar, Pa.-based reseller, consulting service and integrator of enterprise network connectivity systems.

Presidio came back with an optical wireless technology that is foreign to many people in the insurance industry. Called free-space optics (FSO), it transmits light beams from one telescope-type device to another using low-power infrared lasers to send and receive voice, video and data.

FREE-SPACE OPTICS

FSO, often used on college and hospital campuses, enables the line-of-sight transmission of up to 1.25-GB-per-second of data, voice and video communications through the air using optical wireless devices that consist of an optical transmitter and a receiver to provide full-duplex capability. FSO-based solutions do not require a license or radio frequency (RF) spectrum.

"I haven't heard this being used elsewhere (in the insurance industry)," says Donald Light, a senior analyst in Boston-based Celent LLC's insurance group. "It does seem to have a real applicability in a limited number of situations, namely where there's a line-of-sight capability between two networks or two locations that need a high throughput network connection between them."

Light, whose research focuses on network infrastructure among other topics, points to the BCNEPA case as one of the more innovative in network connectivity. Generally, he says, insurers will lease lines or lease capacity from the big telecoms. "(BCNEPA's case) is a very specific kind of situation where you have buildings in pretty close physical proximity with line of sight," he says, "so if you have an insurer who has a campus, which a lot do, it could be a solution as a primary or backup connection."

Some benefits of FSO include the faster deployment of the technology (rather than laying cable). A drawback is the effect weather can have on the system, because dense fog can break the light beams.

FSO systems typically interface with a network switch, hub, bridge or router via multimode fiber and standard ST or SC connectors.

PUTTING IT TO USE

The decision to install free-space optics stood; BCNEPA researched a number of providers and products and agreed on FlightLite G from now-defunct LightPointe Communications Inc.

San Diego-based LightPointe, which closed its doors in May, designed and manufactured license-free, high-speed outdoor wireless products that link two or more buildings with LAN-to-LAN backbone connectivity, providing bandwidth from 100 MB to 1.25 GB per second, while eliminating the installation challenges of fiber.

Though LightPointe is closed, there are still many vendors providing FSO solutions, such as U.K.-based Cablefree Solutions Ltd., McLean, Va.-based fSona Communications Corp. and Chatsworth, Calif.-based MRV Communications Inc.

BCNEPA's two offices stand only 300 yards apart with a clear line of sight. The FlightLite G system, providing BCNEPA with full-duplex Gigabit Ethernet throughput (1.25 GB per second), was installed quickly, even after rectifying a problem with the internal optics on the devices.

It took two to two-and-a-half weeks to get the unit mounted, take it down again, remount it and line it up with the other unit across the street, according to Harry Dailey, telecommunications analyst for LAN/WAN in BCNEPA's network services department.

Before installation, the BCNEPA IT staff participated in an orientation session to understand the system. "It was a day-long class to learn what it did, how to hook it up, the parts, the pieces-the whole nine yards," says Dailey.

BCNEPA noticed the effect on its productivity of moving from 20 MB to the 1.25-GB bandwidth, including faster claims processing. Its high-bandwidth applications operated at full speed, as if employees were accessing them from the main office.

FlightLite G also eased BCNEPA's concern for meeting HIPAA security requirements. The narrow beams of invisible light pulses spread no more than half a degree between two units in a point-to-point connection.

Therefore, detection and interception of optical wireless transmissions are close to impossible. Additionally, these light pulses require a proprietary polished mirror surface to be received.

When BCNEPA got the okay from the city to dig-after the FlightLite was installed-the insurer put two conduits between its two buildings and ran a hybrid fiber made of a multi and single mode to be used as primary and backup communication, says John Calomino, telecommunications engineer at BCNEPA.

FUTURE USE

Currently, BCNEPA is testing the newly installed SONET ring, and FlightLite G is still serving as the primary connection. Once the SONET ring is ready to go, the FlightLite will serve as a backup link for improved disaster recovery. The SONET ring is primary; FlightLite secondary and the third backup is dark fiber, which is an unused fiber optic cable.

The company's dark fiber connection between its two buildings, which serves as a third backup, will eventually replace the SONET ring. But BCNEPA is taking one step at a time.

The SONET ring will be more reliable (than the FlightLite) as the primary link, says Dailey, "even though (the FlightLite) is working 100% and has not gone down. Even with the conditions we ran into-snow, wind, rain-it has proved itself," he says.

As the primary link, FlightLite will have paid for itself in 15 months, says Calomino. Calomino and Dailey predict, as a backup, it will save $70,000 to $80,000 per year over competing alternatives, when used in conjunction with the SONET ring.

AT A GLANCE

Company: Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania (BCNEPA)

Location: Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Business: Health insurance products and administrative services to approximately 600,000 individuals in northeastern and north central Pennsylvania.

Employees: 1,000

Revenue: $721,867 in 2005

At issue: Business growth required a larger network and an expansion to a larger second office a block away from headquarters. The installation of a SONET ring to support high-bandwidth health insurance applications and e-mail would take months to install, causing prolonged downtime.

Solution: A free-space optics system, offering full-duplex Gigabit Ethernet throughput (1.25 GB per second), provides temporary connectivity as a primary link until completion of installation of the SONET ring.

VoIP Stepping Up

A free-space optics system is suitable for one of the growing technologies affecting the insurance enterprise: voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) or Internet protocol telephony (IPT).

According to a survey from Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories Inc., Daly City, Calif., IPT is making its way to a specific area of the insurance business: the contact center (see "Standing Out from the Crowd," page 12.).

However, the approach differs from IPT deployment for wider corporate telephony networks because of the uniquely complex nature of contact centers.

The study indicated that contact center technology changes quickly to adapt to corporate networks. So, the majority of contact center managers-responding to the survey who were investigating IPT were highly or extremely concerned about retaining compatibility with a variety of applications and infrastructure vendors.

The study also revealed that the decision to deploy IPT in contact centers is often distinct from broader enterprisewide implementations of IPT because the business capabilities and functionality demanded by contact centers are particularly distinct. For instance, the study revealed that regardless of the platform an organization chooses for IPT, the business applications and intelligent routing capabilities remain the most important considerations for contact centers.

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