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
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