E-Mail, IM Play Major Roles as Phone Service Jams

As last week's terrorist attacks slowed telecommunications services in the Northeast, many businesses and individuals turned to the Internet to track co-workers and family.

As last weeks terrorist attacks slowed telecommunications services in the Northeast, many businesses and individuals turned to the Internet to track co-workers and family.

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 at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., and an eWeek Corporate Partner. "E-mail was getting through even though calls werent. Thats how I got the message from my friend."

Instant messaging as well found a huge audience. America Online Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp.s Microsoft 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 IM platform to keep in touch with them after word of the World Trade Center attack spread.

"Communication by phone was virtually impossible," said Nicole Picciotta, Shaw Pittman CIO. "Sametime really proved to be a valuable communication tool to check on people and make sure they were OK."

Rodric OConnor is evaluating IM, but he used e-mail to communicate with co-workers and customers in New York 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. "You call and the lines are busy. E-mail seems to be flowing normally. And some people are using their BlackBerry pagers."

Major carriers did not lose service, but because of the high volume of calls into and out of New York and Washington, many did not go through.

Major wireless carriers said that most interruptions to their services were caused by an unprecedented number of calls and not by physical damage to network equipment. But there was equipment damage.

Verizon Communications said 10 wireless transmitters serving Lower Manhattan were destroyed. The New York company was working late last week to set up temporary transmitters in Jersey City, N.J.

As of Thursday, Sprint Spectrum LP, which operates the Sprint PCS wireless network, had logged two-and-a-half times the normal traffic volume for its New York City network since the incident on Tuesday morning.

Sprint set up two Cells on Wheels portable antennas to keep communication going in the New York area. The company gave Personal Communications Service handsets to the New York Police Department and redirected a cell in New Jersey so emergency officials could communicate.

Cell phones are reported to have played a crucial role during the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93 when passengers used them to call family who alerted them to the other hijackings. With that information, it was reported, some passengers resisted their attackers, which led to the downing of the plane in a rural area outside Pittsburgh, averting a bigger tragedy.

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 companies 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."