How did you get started with telephones at Penn State?
I began my career at Penn State in 1980 as manager of Telephone Services, in an early division of Business Services.
My job was to monitor what the big telcos were doing and keep abreast of FCC rules and regulations to determine telecommunications strategy for the University. We knew major changes were coming down the pike as a result of the 1982 phone divestiture, and a strategic planning group was created to provide recommendations for telecommunications at Penn State. One of the recommendations was to form a separate Office of Telecommunications (OTC).
I became Associate Senior Director for the OTC, which later evolved into Telecommunications and Networking Services (TNS), a unit of Information Technology Services.
In this capacity, I oversaw the creation of the new OTC organization and I also helped make decisions regarding initial telephone and voice communication policy as well as policy covering the growing data communication needs for the University, including compressed video and multimedia communications services.When were the first telephones installed at Penn State?
The first telephones at the University were installed in the early 1880s, specifically in Old Main on the University Park campus. Student runners were used to relay messages to professors or administrators located in other buildings.
A local newspaper, The Bellefonte Democrat Watchman, reported on June 23, 1883 that “The State College (as Penn State was then known) now is connected by telephone to the outside world.”
This first phone was located in President George Atherton’s office. According to reports, Atherton considered the new form of communication “an indispensable nuisance.” But soon after, the Business Office, Engineering Building, Agriculture Building, and Registrar’s Office also had telephones.What was your role in the creation and advancement of telephone/voice communication systems at Penn State?
The deregulation of the AT&T monopoly in 1982 brought rapid competition in the long-distance marketplace, as well as technological innovation. Penn State now had the option to acquire telephone systems rather than lease, and to buy from someone other than AT&T. As a result, we had the ability to buy the cable infrastructure running across our campuses, and to initiate competitive proposals for long-distance calling.
Of course, to take advantage of these emerging capabilities also required learning work skills that had been provided by the old phone company, and also acquiring staff to fulfill roles previously provided by the phone company. New financing options, new service procedures, and new physical space all needed to be developed. My role in the newly created OTC organization at Penn State was to oversee the creation of the various groups that would make up OTC and to help develop strategies and policy concerning telecommunications at Penn State.What are some of your telephone “firsts” at Penn State?
During the 1980s Penn State purchased phone systems for all campuses except for University Park. Since the technology at the time required a large central office in order to house the switching equipment, there was no building space or funding available to build a new structure on the University Park campus to house the equipment. Based on that, Penn State was the first to negotiate a custom contract with Bell Atlantic for something called Centrex service, an arrangement in which the switching equipment is housed in a phone company building, for the University Park campus.
While we were happy with the negotiations specific to University Park, we were disappointed with not being able to run our own system at that campus. However, because we did not have a large investment in the older technology, we were able to move more aggressively with deploying new VoIP—Voice over Internet Protocol—technology. This technology enabled Penn State to become one of the first Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) institutions to deploy large amounts of VoIP service campus-wide. So I guess no matter how well you plan, there’s no substitute for dumb luck.
In this same time frame we also were able to develop a very successful student long-distance program. Now, when most of us don’t think about the cost of making a call, it’s hard to remember when long-distance calling charges were a serious concern for all of us, particularly for students who were charged at standard residential rates. The program we developed covered resident students at all campuses and grew from an initial 5 percent discount from standard rates to a 35 percent discount.
The discount could have been larger but we encountered resistance from other universities who used long-distance as a revenue generator. At Penn State, we viewed this as a service and while some revenue was used to supplement other communications needs, the long-distance revenue was not planned to meet long-term communication needs.
As changes in technology and policy led to shrinking long-distance charges the student program was cancelled, but for several years it provided a valued service. It also allowed us to foresee that changes in voice communication services were going to require a change in our budget process.Were there any courses conducted via telephone (line) at Penn State?
Yes. A university has a responsibility for undertaking experimental research on educational methods, particularly methods which will make it possible for the institution to serve those persons unable to attend traditional college classes. As a result, in the mid-1990s, courses like Accounting 101, Chemistry 1, Air Science 3, and Music used standard telephone lines for the transmission of closed-circuit TV signals to reach students. In fact, Penn State was considered the pioneer in the “teaching-by-TV” program which had over 20 courses taught by the closed-circuit system. Most of the students admitted to these courses could not have attended without the use of closed-circuit TV.
In addition to this, Health and Human Development also was an early academic pioneer of distance learning. In the late 1980s, they started using compressed video to deliver courses over dedicated T-1 telephone lines from the Mitchell Building digital photography studio to Hershey Medical Center and Penn State Erie, the Behrend College. T-1 lines can carry more data than traditional telephone lines. This was the first use of two-way compressed video at Penn State. This capability was then added to Penn State Harrisburg.Can you tell us about the evolution of cellular service at Penn State?
Penn State recognized the value of cellular technology early on. In fact, we were among the first higher education institutions to place cell sites on campus, improving signal availability and penetration.
In early 2000, we began to work with the cellular carriers who owned licensed service in the State College area and at our other campus locations. My role was developing relationships with vendors to create unique arrangements that enabled Penn State to erect five cell sites on the University Park campus to permit the cellular vendor to use our telecommunications infrastructure to deliver their service. Since there was only one cell tower (located at University Support Building II) we certainly got creative with finding space on campus for these cell sites.
As with other technology developments, Penn State was interested in making this service available in as many locations and with as attractive rates as possible. Over the years, discounted service plans have also been negotiated but these have not been as attractive as hoped for.Although voice technology has been extremely important to Penn State, today’s telephone lines need to transport a great deal more than voice communications. Can you explain how technologies are evolving to meet the needs of today?
The significant communications shift that took place from the 1980s until today has been the use of communications for transmitting information other than voice, as well as the use of machine-to-machine communications. Voice will remain an important component whether standalone or as part of video, but as technology moves forward it will continue to be less and less of the total carried transmission.
For instance, there is an engineer who lives here in Sandpoint, Idaho who is working on a glass road surface. In fact, he’s met with material scientists at Penn State’s Materials Research Institute. Embedded in this surface will be sensors and solar cells along with communications paths. The road surface will be able to generate electricity, sense changes to the surface and conditions, transmit this information via fiber optic for computation, and then direct action. So, if a small child or a deer steps on the road somewhere in front of you, the system will automatically trigger a sign near you to warn you of this potential danger. Solar generated power can also create warm surfaces to melt snow, or perhaps power recharging stations for electric vehicles.
The use of optical fiber for network infrastructure has grown significantly over the past decades yet there are still many areas with limited amount of fiber, or with fiber whose age restricts its ability. Pennsylvania has many such areas.
We know that increased carry capacity leads to advanced applications which, in turn, leads to the need for increased carry capacity. Recognizing that the lack of fiber availability or the wrong kind of fiber availability could create future problems for much of the state, we started realizing that the potential to acquire stimulus funds to construct a robust fiber infrastructure seemed like the right thing to do.You were involved in the creation of the Pennsylvania Research and Education Network (PennREN), a project that will transform and improve digital communication across Pennsylvania. Could you tell us something about your role in developing this critical project?
PennREN, is a regional, very-high-speed optical network project currently underway. While it will serve many, the initial focus in its development was with non-profit organizations. Among these, the larger universities and hospitals scattered across the Commonwealth have well-developed networks, but many smaller institutions and community institutions like libraries, museums, and clinics struggle with finding affordable advanced networks.
Several people had tried over the years to create a state-wide network but it never came to be. The potential availability of stimulus funding provided the right incentive to get these folks to the table and to add others.
I carefully read through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (a.k.a. Federal Stimulus funding) and I made the initial reach to several of these people—and once we started, many individuals contributed to the process. From March to May of 2009 we met, discussed network architecture ideas and whether we believed a proposal could be successfully developed. In June 2009 the group decided to go for it. We agreed to have each involved institution contribute to a seed fund, and also agreed to contribute labor to develop the proposal.
All recognized the benefit that could come from having a very-high-speed network interconnecting our organizations and providing access to national and international networks. After the proposal was drafted and successfully defended, the organization building PennREN, the Keystone Initiative for Network Based Education and Research (KINBER), was awarded one of the largest single grants made to any organization.How will PennREN help organizations and businesses throughout Pennsylvania improve their access to high-bandwidth network connections?
Several years ago Penn State acquired its own fiber, connecting the Penn State backbone to the Three Rivers Optical Exchange (3ROX) in Pittsburgh. This gives the University control over the fiber asset allowing decisions on bandwidth to be made by the University, not the carriers. PennREN will provide the same sort of control for its users with decisions made by KINBER, not by carriers.
PennREN will drive competition in at least two ways. As a middle-mile network, it will encourage last-mile (or first-mile depending on your perspective) providers to offer new service or perhaps the first service in a given area. PennREN will also encourage other service providers to begin offering higher speed and advanced network services.
I also believe that PennREN can drive the need for continuously improving service offerings. Historically, policy direction has pushed carriers to offer the same level of service everywhere. When we were only concerned with voice, this made great sense. Now, it no longer does.
Penn State is always looking for ways to improve technology to serve its students, faculty, staff, and other constituents. It was one heck of a summer and fall crafting and submitting the PennREN proposal, but I truly believe that information technology can do so much to improve social life and economic vitality.
Much like farmers learned to use the natural resources of our land, the IT infrastructure built through networks like PennREN will really tap into the resources of the people.Sandpoint is pretty far from major cities as well as research hubs like Penn State. Are there opportunities for you to address your professional interests while continuing to take in all the natural beauty of Idaho?
I recently spent a few days in British Columbia, a stunningly beautiful part of the Northwest, and think I even glimpsed one of the rare Woodland Caribou on the drive back to Idaho. We’ve had a very unusual spring season in Idaho with much wetter and cooler weather than normal, but as summer does arrive I’m looking forward to kayaking, hiking, golfing, and learning to sail.
But living here has furthered my belief that improved communications are an essential for economic development. Service here is limited in both competition and capability. The local economy is driven mostly by tourism as agriculture and logging continue to decline. Although there are some significant small businesses (Coldwater Creek, Litehouse Foods and Quest Airlines manufacturing), affordable advanced communications capabilities could attract software development, web design, and other forms of professional clean industries. The beauty and outdoor attractions in Idaho would entice many professionals to locate here if there were good employment opportunities.
So I’ll continue to look for ways to help contribute to efforts to enhance our national communications systems and communications policy.What do you think the phone of the future will look like?
We know that the telephone is one of the most important technological inventions of our time because of the length of time it has been utilized and the rate in which its use continues to grow throughout the world. I suspect that there will be a variety of devices, including more integrated devices in autos and apparel. But when it comes down to it, the phone itself is only as good as the network it’s on. Without a robust infrastructure you won’t have all of those bells and whistles and the device basically turns into a fancy paperweight.
I can assure you that voice communications will continue to be an important element of communications as it always has for humans and others. Humans and all critters have a need to communicate. Every day I listen to Canadian geese, Ospreys and the occasional bald eagle voicing their opinion about something—just hope they’re not identifying me as a target. ■
By Julie Eble