Antique phone system hangs on by wire

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February 20, 2009

1:17 AM

Last November, the College of William and Mary’s phone system short-circuited, shutting down every campus line for about 10 minutes.

Since then, there have been no more blackouts.

Consider the College lucky.

The phone system is 20 years old, installed before many students were born. It’s an energy-guzzler, requiring up to twice the electricity of modern systems. It also costs more to run.

And the system cannot expand. That’s because the company that made it discontinued the product about a decade ago. The system is now maxed out, with 7,135 ports. New phone lines cannot be added, which is a problem for a campus that’s always under construction.

Dorm phone lines — now free of charge — will likely cost $50 starting next semester. The College’s Information Technology department projects that most students will gladly give up their campus lines, since the vast majority rely on cell phones. The result: new campus buildings can use the phone lines students no longer need.

The flashy new School of Business building will be fully equipped with the 1980s phone system. Future buildings could be out of luck.

“Ultimately, something will have to be done,” said Chris Ward, IT’s director of systems and support. “We’re now just starting to work on a request for a proposal so we can get some bids on what a new system would cost.”

Officials expect a new phone system to cost around $2 million, plus monthly operational expenses. A new system would cut down on energy use by as much as 50 percent, Ward said, and would have more advanced 9-1-1 technology, such as better location information and graphic display capabilities.

“Old electronics suck down the power like nobody’s business — it’s very costly from that point of view,” Ward said. “This is really old technology. You can tell by just looking at it.”

He’s right, you can tell. In the College’s switch room, the technology hub in the basement of Blow Hall that houses the College’s phone system, Courtney Carpenter has to yell over the rumble of an industrial air conditioning unit. It’s needed to blow cool air at all times on the massive machines that make up the College’s phone system.

Without the air conditioning unit, said the College’s chief information officer, “the room would overheat in a matter of minutes.”

Machines with flashing lights connect calls. A large box stores voicemail messages. Internet cables, television wires and about 15,000 tiny phone lines — two from each port on campus — all meet here in the switch room.

Modern phone systems simply route their connections through already existing internet cables. But the College’s phone system predates campus-wide internet.

Installed in 1989, the system is now one of four left in the United States. Many clients upgraded to more advanced systems in the mid-1990s, when the manufacturer, Intecom, announced it would discontinue the product. But the College chose to keep the old system.

Since then, a third-party vendor, Ensource, has maintained the College’s system, which consists of thousands of phones and phone lines, along with the large machines in the switch room. The Florida-based third-party vendor buys up old systems that are being replaced, then uses those parts to fix its clients’ out-of-date systems.

“Considering it’s an old clunker, what it’s doing today is remarkable,” said James Fields, an on-site technician at the College who works for Ensource. “But at some point, you got to step up and say, enough’s enough.”

The company estimates it can continue relying on spare parts to maintain the College’s phones for another four years, but College officials fear the system may now be unstable — that it’s only a matter of time before it shuts down again, possibly for much longer than 10 minutes.

What happens when the phone system shuts down? No one can call in, and no one can call out, not even to 9-1-1. This danger is small, of course, because virtually everyone on campus carries a cell phone.

In November, the same month the phone system short-circuited, the College’s vice president for administration, Anna Martin, mentioned the aging phone system in a speech at the quarterly Board of Visitors meeting.

“Component failures become more frequent,” she told the board. “And we don’t know how long we can continue to operate.”

The 10-minute November blackout convinced Carpenter it’s time to actively seek a new system. He now has two phones on his desk: a yellowish College phone and a black Aastra-brand phone that he’s testing.

The Aastra phone plugs directly into Carpenter’s computer, connecting to a server through his internet cord.
It allows him to view missed calls online, and it even sends voicemails to his e-mail account as sound-file attachments.

Carpenter hopes to have a new phone system selected and purchased next year, but whether that’s possible depends on funding. The College faces millions of dollars in state budget cuts and endowment losses, and
replacing a system that appears to work just fine is low on the College’s priority list.

“There’s no business drive to replace it — this system’s bought and paid for,” Carpenter said. “But there’s going to come a day when this vendor runs out of parts, and we want to be off of it before that happens.
That’s the kind of dangerous game we’re playing by not replacing it.”

Nearby universities are using more advanced technology.

Old Dominion University in Norfolk is currently transitioning from a two-decade-old system like the College’s to a newer system like the one Carpenter is testing.

Christopher Newport University in Newport News already relies on such a system. The newer, more efficient technology costs the school $8,175 per month to operate, compared to $22,510 at the College, a slightly larger campus.

Last weekend, a contractor working on a road next to CNU’s campus severed a vital cable, knocking out the school’s internet for three days, along with many of its phones. But the hall directors in the university’s dorms have phones that connect to the system using different cables, an intentional technology overlap meant to keep those phones running even if others shut down.

The College’s system lacks such an overlap. All campus phone lines use the same technology to travel to the same place — the switch room.

It is there, where about 15,000 colorful telephone wires connect, that Carpenter said the system does have some redundancy, an “A” side and a “B” side. If one side shuts down, the other keeps the entire system running. In November, both sides shut down.

The industrial air conditioning unit continued roaring, cooling the two rows of 10-foot-tall machines that make up the College’s phone system. Using today’s technology, the machines would be replaced by a single box, about the size of a microwave.

“You hate to spend money on something that’s working,” Carpenter said as he examined the 1980s technology upon which the College relies. “We’re tight around here, but I think we’ve gotten our money’s worth out of this one.”

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