Wireless Aids in Recovery

By Carmen Nobel  |  Posted 2001-09-24

Living up to its promise of being easy to get up and running, the wireless network is playing an integral communications role in the recovery efforts in areas of New York and Washington devastated by terrorist attacks two weeks ago.

IT officials from Arlington County, Va., joined several companies, including Avaya Inc. and AT&T Corp., in setting up a wireless network on the grounds of the Pentagon, where a direct hit from a hijacked airliner knocked out local networks. The wireless network connects to a server in Arlington and allows rescue workers to send and receive e-mail and to maintain access to government databases.

The Pentagon chose fixed wireless over a WLAN (wireless LAN) for security reasons. "They needed [to be] networked. They didnt have access to records," said Jack Belcher, CIO for Arlington Countys Technology Office. "It dawned on me, maybe wireless was the way to do that." After installing line-of-sight antennas in Arlington and at the crash site, Belchers team tapped a hardware store for more hardware. "Saturday night it was a concept, and Tuesday afternoon it was a reality," Belcher said.

Despite the reduced transmission rates and security problems that worried Pentagon officials, industry experts say that WLANs can be a great temporary solution in an emergency.

"When the 802.11b [wireless standard] first started coming out, this [type of situation] was one of my first thoughts," said Kevin Baradet, network systems director at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., and an eWeek Corporate Partner. "You could have a network in a box. ... It would be the sort of thing where you could ship this thing and set it up in a field office in no time."

In New York, many residents who were still having cell phone problems were taking advantage of the WLANs at coffee shops all over Manhattan.

MobileStar Network Corp. offers Internet access via WLANs installed at 550 Starbucks coffee shops in several major cities. After the attacks, the company offered free Internet access in its Manhattan locations.

"We saw the usage in Starbucks and hotels increase Tuesday and Wednesday," said Ali Tabassi, chief technology officer at MobileStar, in Richardson, Texas. "Cell phones are still difficult to use, and pay phones still have long lines."

MobileStar is one of several companies that offer WLAN Internet services in airports, which raises some security issues. The encryption standards used to protect WLAN transmissions are easily foiled, and tracking criminals using WLANs in public places is difficult.

MobileStar officials said this shouldnt be a problem because the companys airport kiosks require a user name and password. "We have taken some other measures on our own," Tabassi said. "We are using Secure Sockets Layer for authentication and new user sign-off ... and sign-on is based on a unique user ID and password."

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