Peer Pressure

When one Georgia school opted for VoIP, the new telecom initiative sparked precedent for a whole university system.

IT’S NOT JUST POLITICIANS who promise their constituents “sweeping change.” Bill Gruszka, the CIO at Southern Polytechnic State University (GA), recently instituted a “sweeping change” trend of his own—voice over IP (VoIP). In fact, Gruszka’s gutsy switch to VoIP has laid the groundwork for change throughout his school’s parent organization, the University System of Georgia (USG), inspiring at least five other institutions in the system to switch, as well. And according to insiders, the real changes have only just begun. “In switching to VoIP, we started something incredible,” Gruszka readily admits. “I can’t believe it took us so long, and looking ahead, the possibilities are just wild.”

The seeds of the switchover to VoIP actually sprouted sometime late in 2002, when Gruszka had his ‘eureka’ moment. After spending upwards of $400,000 annually on Centrex-based voice service from the Georgia Technology Authority, Gruszka decided there had to be a better way to tackle telecom, and set out to find it. He wrote up a request for proposals (RFP), and received offers from a variety of vendors, including Cisco Systems (www.cisco.com), Avaya (www.avaya.com), 3Com (www.3com.com), and others. In the end, however, Gruszka chose a system from ShoreTel (www.shoretel.com), mostly because when he tried it, the system was easy to use.

Sell the Concept; Spread the Word

The implementation, a hybrid model that incorporated both analog and digital technologies, took 18 months to complete. As part of the effort, ShoreTel technicians configured the campus so that all faculty and staff members would switch to VoIP phones, while students in on-campus dorm rooms could choose between VoIP phones that connected through Ethernet jacks, or analog phones that ran over VoIP behind the scenes. Both solutions yielded the same result: more reliable service across the board.

“With VoIP, we determine when to do adds, moves, and changes, and we’re paying much less for them than we would have with Centrex,” he says, noting that longdistance savings, long reputed to be the biggest benefit of VoIP, was only a minor factor in the switch. “VoIP really has made everything easier around here.” Everything got so easy, in fact, that perhaps the only challenge with the new system at Southern Polytechnic was getting permission to set it up. Because the new technology diverged so significantly from the older technology, Gruszka had to get permission from Randall Thursby, vice chancellor for Information and Instructional Technology (the USG technology coordinator), to make the switch. Thursby was skeptical at first, but eventually came around with great interest. As it turned out, Thursby didn’t only grant Gruszka permission; he took the opportunity to endorse VoIP as a viable alternative to Centrex-based telecommunications, and then he spread the word to other schools in the University System of Georgia, urging them to embrace the technology, too.

Within weeks, Chrystle Ross, director of the Office of Information Technology at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College (GA), had jumped aboard the VoIP bandwagon, opting for a comprehensive system from Cisco, as part of an overall network upgrade.

Other schools followed suit. At Georgia Perimeter College, Bruce Briggs, CIO and associate VP for IT, also inked a deal with Cisco. At the University of West Georgia, CTO Mitchell Russell signed up for a hybrid VoIP solution from Nortel Networks (www.nortel.com). Finally, Thursby himself took the plunge for the Georgia system’s Information and Instructional Technology department; last year, he signed up an Avaya solution that was rolled out as the department moved into a brand-new facility.

“We had the infrastructure already; it was just a matter of what kind of technology to use,” says Thursby. “After seeing what VoIP did for [Southern Polytechnic and Abraham Baldwin], and realizing that the cost of another Centrex switch in the new building would have been more than VoIP, it just made sense to follow their lead.”

Dollars and Sense
The system-level switch to VoIP had dramatic bottom-line impact. Because the University System of Georgia has three organizational offices in Atlanta and one in Athens, within Thursby’s department VoIP has reduced longdistance calls between locations. And across the network of 34 schools, a research site, and the system office, Thursby estimates that by 2009 VoIP will cut $12 to $13 million off the annual $40 million telecom bill —a savings of roughly 25 percent. Even more savings could be on the way. In recent months, Georgia Highlands College and other schools within the network have expressed interest in VoIP. Ultimately, the goal is to get all of the USG schools into it. In the meantime, while these schools wade into VoIP, Gruszka, the pioneer from Southern Polytechnic State, takes comfort in knowing that his own curiosity may have forever changed telecommunications strategy for the University System of Georgia. “I’m just happy we’re all making a habit out of saving money,” Gruszka says. “None of us is made of money, so anything I can do to cut telecom costs, I’m going to try.”

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