Tuesdays attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon snarled telecommunications services in the northeastern part of the country, forcing many companies to rely on e-mail or instant messaging to stay in touch with co-workers and customers in that region.
Kevin Baradet, for one, was thankful for an e-mail that let him know a friend who works for a major brokerage in New York had made it safely out of Building 7 of the World Trade Center complex.
“My friend saw both planes hit. He bolted from the building and was showered with debris and bodies,” said Baradet, network systems director at the S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y. “E-mail was getting through even though calls werent. Thats how I got the message from my friend.”
Instant messaging found a huge audience, too. America Online Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp.s MSN network reported increased traffic on their instant messaging systems, including a record 700 million messages on AOLs Instant Messenger service Tuesday.
Shaw Pittman LLP, a Washington-based law firm that had employees traveling to its midtown Manhattan offices Tuesday, used Lotus Development Corp.s Sametime corporate IM platform to keep in touch with them after word of the World Trade Center carnage spread.
“Communication by phone was virtually impossible,” said Shaw Pittman CIO Nicole Picciotta. “Sametime really proved to be a valuable communication tool to check on people and make sure they were OK.”
Picciotta said she wished her employees had Sametime Everyplace on their wireless devices-which the firm has not deployed-so they could have continued to keep in touch after the New York office was evacuated.
Not all corporate users had instant messaging, though.
“Its in use all over my house, but nobody in my company really uses it,” said Mike Bauer, a vice president at Siemens.
Rodric OConnor is evaluating IM, but e-mail was his mode of communications with co-workers and customers in New York and family members in the United Kingdom after the attack.
“E-mail seems to be the most reliable mechanism,” said OConnor, vice president of technology at Putnam Lovell Securities Inc. in San Francisco.
“The phone lines are down; its very hard to get in contact with people,” said OConnor. “You call and the lines are busy. E-mail seems to be flowing normally. And some people are using their Blackberry pagers.”
“I havent been able to contact people in New York except by e-mail,” said Bauer, northern region vice president of sales and marketing at Siemens Power Transmission and Distribution, Wednesday in Richmond, Va. “We had trouble reaching people in our headquarters in Raleigh, N.C., too. Theres been trouble with the phone lines there.”
Major carriers did not lose service, but because of the volume of calls into and out of the New York and Washington metropolitan areas, many calls did not to go through.
Major wireless carriers said that most of the interruptions had been caused by an unprecedented number of calls to New York and not by physical damage to network equipment. But there was equipment damage.
Verizon Wireless said that 10 wireless transmitters serving Lower Manhattan had been destroyed. The New York company was working Thursday to set up temporary transmitters in Jersey City, N.J.
As of Thursday, Sprint PCS had logged two-and-a-half times the normal traffic volume for its New York City network since the incident on Tuesday morning. The company had network equipment in the basement of one of the trade centers, and as of Thursday four cell sites were still down.
Sprint set up two portable Cells on Wheels to keep communication going in the New York area. The company gave PCS handsets to the New York Police Department and redirected a cell in New Jersey so that emergency officials could communicate.
Still, some companies depended on the telephone to communicate as the tragedy unfolded.
“Getting [open] phone lines was exceedingly tough. Cells were down,” said Rich Schineller, president of 3rd Millennium Management LLC, a crisis communications company in Wayne, N.J., that helped three New York City firms stay in contact with employees and customers after the attack. “We had speed dialers. You just have to keep hammering it until you get through.”
Schineller did, however, see more dependence on e-mail and instant messaging during this crisis than previous ones his company has handled.
3rd Millennium and its clients did send out e-mail to distribute follow-up information to employees and customers and found response rates from that rising by Thursday as more people were able to log onto corporate networks.
Attendees at the NetWorld+Interop trade show in Atlanta had little trouble making calls to places other than New York and Washington.
“Im from Guatemala, and Ive been using e-mail and Ive been using the phone, and Ive had no problem,” said Pablo Pastor Chacon, an engineer with the tele-information division of Empresa de Ingenieros Guatemaltecos S.A., of Guatemala City. Chacons offices are connected via frame relay networks. “We come from a 40-year-old war in Guatemala. We have earthquakes and volcanoes. We have in place redundant links, backup generators, and we have both satellite and terrestrial connections. For any business, losing a link is losing money.”
Despite the damage done to telecommunications networks, Internet data traffic emerged largely unscathed. That was because the World Trade Center had a lot of Internet endpoints, but no “peering points”-junctions that exchange data between major data networks, according to Bill Jones, senior director of public services at Keynote Systems Inc., a San Mateo, Calif., company that tracks Internet performance.
While many rushed to e-mail and instant messaging for personal communications, many more turned to the Web, and news Web sites in particular, to read breaking news of the terrorist attacks. As a result, the average response time for many of the top business Web sites was four times longer than usual, and several news sites-including CNN.com, NYTimes.com and ABCNews.com-were inaccessible between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. Tuesday. By afternoon most sites had returned to normal.
“Half the world logged onto news sites,” said Jones. “The infrastructure remained intact. Certain Web sites just couldnt handle the sudden spike in volume.”
Still, some expressed frustration that a medium originally designed for military communications in times of emergency was unavailable.
“It really exposes the immaturity of the Internet when you try to do what it was meant for and you cant,” said Mark Bercow, vice president of business development at Atheros Communications Inc., in Sunnyvale, Calif. Bercow, who was attending the NetWorld+Interop trade show, found that about one out of every seven cell phone calls was going through on Tuesday.