Phone System Marks 10 Years of Service
SPECIAL TO THE CHRONICLE
August 25, 2000
There was a collective deep breath, the flip
of a switch, and suddenly, the campus telephone system took a quantum
leap into the future.
"It was pretty scary business," recalls Douglas Abbott, who at
the time was associate vice chancellor for Computing and Information
Systems (now the Office of Information Technologies). "It affected
the whole campus."
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the switch from New England
Telephone's (NET) 24-year-old Centrex system to the Ericsson digital
MD110 PBX network. The Worcester campus was the first to go online
in September 1989, and Boston went online in January 1990. The
Amherst campus followed on July 21, 1990, meeting its deadline
The $29.5 million three-campus Ericsson system offered such features
as call forwarding, conference calling, and electronic voice mail,
something that only a few people were familiar with at the time.
More importantly, it provided simultaneous access to both telephone
service and data networks at the desktop. Data services were accessed
through terminal adapter units (TAUs), which in 1990 were about
four times faster than the average modem.
Today, the Ericsson system supports wireless communication, the
ability to check voice mail through a Web browser, automatic call
distribution (ACD), digital connections to local and long distance
carriers, and caller ID.
"We were effectively leaping several generations in technology,"
Telecommunication Services director Randy Sailer said, "from a
rotary-dial analog system to a fully-featured digital system."
The switch gave UMass the distinction of being one of the largest
digital PBX (private branch exchange) systems in the world.
Ericsson took two years to install the system on the three campuses,
and used about 300 people, including staff and contractors. The
system included more than 34,000 voice and data lines (23,320
at Amherst), and required 449 buildings to be rewired. Almost
200 miles of cabling was laid, and 12 miles of new trenches were
dug. About 497 miles of inside wiring was installed, and 175,000
cubic feet of concrete was poured. In Amherst, on the first full
day of operation, 157,179 calls were processed by the Ericsson
Once the new system was in place, Abbott said, it was discovered
about $1.25 million had been saved during the process. This money,
which came from the Amherst portion of the project ($21.8 million),
was diverted toward bringing fiber optic cabling to 43 buildings
on campus. This was the beginning of the Campus Wide Wiring/Network
Project, and today's high speed data network.
Interest rates came down in 1996, Abbott said, and refinancing
the cost of the original Ericsson installation provided additional
funds to continue the job across campus. Today, the campus is
almost completely wired for Ethernet access to data networks on
campus as well as the World Wide Web.
"By the time the residence halls are fully networked sometime
this year," Sailer said, "UMass Amherst will be at least the fifth
most residentially networked campus in the country."
But why did the University decide to switch to the Ericsson system
in the first place? After the breakup of AT&T in 1984, the cost,
quality and availability of telephone service at UMass became
uncertain. The old Centrex system was outdated, overloaded and
expensive. Telephones were rotary dial, and provided none of today's
modern features. The increasing use of telephone lines for computer
data connections was putting stress on the system, and there were
times when outside lines were not available.
All this prompted then-President David C. Knapp to create a task
force on telecommunications planning, composed of faculty and
administrators from the Amherst, Worcester and Boston campuses.
The task force had $325,000 at their disposal for site visits,
research, technical consultants, and faculty release time. They
were charged with preparing a single Request for Proposal (RFP)
to obtain a University-wide telecommunications system.
In 1985, the Amherst campus provost created a separate committee,
the UMass Amherst Network Installation and Coordination Committee
(MANIAC), and charged it with developing a campus needs assessment.
MANIAC was dissolved after members identified campus needs and
decided that the new system was, in fact, necessary.
In 1986, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Richard O'Brien
created another committee, the TelCom Project Installation Committee
(TelPIC), which was charged with drafting precise system specifications
for the Amherst part of the RFP, as well as evaluating vendor
responses to the RFP.
TelPIC was instrumental in determining that the RFP should include
specifications for putting coaxial cables into the ground along
with the phone lines. It also determined that the switch for any
new phone system should be located in the basement of the W.E.B.
Du Bois Library.
The Board of Trustees approved the RFP in December 1986, and
it was released Jan. 14, 1987. Forty-four copies of the RFP were
obtained by potential bidders, and eight proposals from six vendors
were submitted by the June 2, 1987 deadline. Bidders included
NEC/AIM Telephones, AT&T, Ericsson Information Systems, IBM/Rolm,
NYNEX and Northern Telecom. When lined up side by side, the proposals
and supporting documents stretched across 23 feet of table. They
ranged in cost from $28.7 million to $42.5 million.
On Jan. 5, 1998, the University Telecommunications Project Committee
recommended that Ericsson Information Systems was the lowest qualified
bidder, at $29.5 million. A contract was signed in September 1988
and the work began.
The money to pay for the project on all three campuses came from
several sources. About $10.4 million came from the Board of Regents
Capital Outlay, $5 million was transferred from the State Office
of Telecommunications, $9.160 million came from Certificates of
Participation, and $1.265 million came from campus reserves.