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  April 2, 2001

Telecommunications Keeps UConn
Connected to the World 24/7

"We're providing telecommunications for a city," says Robert Vietzke, chief systems architect for university information technology services.

He's not exaggerating. The University, a community of 40,000, uses 20,000 telephone lines 24 hours a day, seven days a week: It's a vast operation that the community takes largely for granted, but it requires careful planning and manpower.

"We have more active telephone lines than SNET does in Storrs, says Vietzke, who oversees capacity planning for the telecommunications network located in the basement of Homer Babbidge Library.

UConn owns a top-of-the-line telephone switch identical to what an international telecommunications provider might use and has a contract with SNET to provide onsite maintenance support under the direction of the University.

In the switch room packed with thousands of colored wires, Vietzke, barely audible above the noise of air conditioners, explains how telephone connections for all the campus buildings and residence halls are made. The touch-tone registration systems, the voice mail system, and alarm circuits are also located in this room.

About 1,000 calls are coming in or going out of the campus at any given time, connecting the University with destinations ranging from the office next door to locations on the opposite side of the globe.

Another space houses the batteries that keep the telephone system running. "The telephone switch is engineered to a level of redundancy such that an outage is extremely remote," says Susan Fisher, director of network and server support for information technology services. There is plenty of backup, so service is never lost during a power failure. If a power outage should occur, a diesel generator turns on and resets the battery chargers.

"Everything is in duplicate or triplicate," Vietzke says, pointing to the chargers. "If one were to fail, there would be a spare already installed; we actually have double the charging capacity we need.

"The level of planning that goes into providing something that is supposed to never go down is incredible," he adds. "That is what we need to do for a telephone system of this size to keep it fully operational on a day-to-day basis. I think it works very well."

Jack Babbitt agrees. "We don't have many problems with the telephone switch or service," says Babbitt, manager of voice communications.

"They make sure that if there are problems with circuits or if lines go down, we'll get them working as quickly as possible," he says. Babbitt's office is at the Kennedy Building on the Depot campus; some of his staff are in the basement of the library, while others are in the Student Union. Staffers in the Student Union help the 8,500 students who use the telephone service and may have questions about their bills. Babbitt's job is to make sure the telephone network is up and running.

His staff of 25 includes people who handle billing, switch technicians who move telephones or install jacks, network people who maintain software for additions, moves or changes in the phone lines, technicians who support the voice mail system, and staffers who handle paging systems and cell phones.

"Behind the scenes, if you keep things running smoothly, people tend to ignore that you even exist," Babbitt says. "I only hear from people when there are problems. Nobody ever calls up and says, 'Jack, guess what I just had a call to Florida and that's the best dial tone I've ever had.'"

Babbitt, however, does not hold back when it comes to praising his staff. "Our telephone operators are wonderful. They are the first point of contact for many people who call the University." And the number of calls they handle is staggering. In December, for instance, some 13,000 incoming calls came to the operators from all over the world.

"Gail Gebhardt and Rose Zoldak, our operators, are unsung heroes," says Babbitt. "Some of the questions that come to them are unbelievable." As the University continues to grow, telecommunications must meet its demands. For example, says Fisher, when people moved out of the old chemistry building into the new one, the needs for telephones increased.

"One would assume the counts would be the same, but they weren't," she says. "For some reason, there's always an increase when an existing department moves, so we have to try to plan for the growth from a switch capacity perspective.

"The other piece that's difficult is the geographic one: Because all our cable plant runs underground it can be problematic for us where a building may be built that requires a large concentration of service. We may not always have the capacity in the cable plant immediately available in that area," she says.

Whatever the obstacles, however, it is the responsibility of the telecommunications staff to overcome them.

"Telephones are not an optional service," says Paul Kobulnicky, vice chancellor for information technology. "We always have to be one or two steps ahead of what's going on at the University. And we've got to be flexible; we've got to be able to do whatever has to be done, when it has to be done."

Sherry Fisher

This article is one in an occasional series taking a look at people and programs behind the scenes.