Digital Phone System Marks 10 Years of Service
Jason Vosu

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 exactly.

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 system.

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.