The VOIP Story of 9/11, Updated

There are dozens of university case studies of IP telephony, but this one is twice timely: It's the back-to-school VOIP story that happened on, and because of, Sept. 11.

The VOIP deployment of the Borough of Manhattan Community College was planned to start as a 50-phone trial, thrown as an accessory project into a large network conversion. When Sept. 11 took out the neighborhoods Verizon central office, that pilot turned into the colleges emergency phone system. Today, the trial IP PBX and phones have grown in size and scope to run a mix of over 900 IP, digital and analog phones. Call center functionality now is being added that will let supervisors draft more staff to answer calls as needed.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the City of New York, or CUNY, college closest to Ground Zero was the Borough of Manhattan Community College. Its main campus on Chambers Street was four blocks north of where the Twin Towers stood. The Verizon central office switching its Centrex lines was the old New York Telephone building on West Street, the one famously gored by the falling girders of Tower 7, which crumbled that afternoon. Tower 7 also took out all 15 floors and 70 classrooms of BMCCs newly renovated Fiterman building.

In those first apocalyptic days after Sept. 11, a good part of the recovery story had to do with telecommunications. Verizons emergency measures included hooking 100 phone lines from BMCCs demarcation point to a truck-mounted, microwave-connected CO (central office). But these were not to be used for the college: They were needed by Port Authority police and emergency medical workers.

Joe Giummo, the colleges director of IT, had inherited what he calls the "telecom stepchild" only a few months before. His first priorities after the towers fell, after assuring his own safety and that of his family and team, was restoring the colleges Internet presence, as a means of keeping faculty and students updated, and then reallocating surviving facilities.

Sometime during that day, he discovered that he had a voice backup in a surviving data line, used for a video feed from BMCCs media center in the main buildings fifth floor. This was a WorldCom Inc. line, running from the great telecom peering site a little further uptown, at 60 Hudson. "WorldCom showed up, looked at the feed, confirmed it was theirs, and looked at a couple of manholes in the street. We were immediately surrounded by people with guns," Giummo recalls.

The other piece of luck was the fact that six months earlier, the college had begun converting its network from a 25M-bps ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) core to 100M-bps Ethernet. This cutover involved the installation, by Alcatels eBusiness Networking Division, of OmniCore 5052 switches and Omni S/R-9 switch routers. As part of that cutover, BMCC started a small-scale Alcatel VOIP (voice over IP) trial: an M1/OmniPCX PBX, with 50 Alcatel Reflex IP phones, in its computer center.

The colleges Centrex contract had been due to expire, and "we figured a small pilot project would get us started," says Giummo. "We had estimated finishing the pilot sometime by Thanksgiving or Christmas 2001."

Next Page: The pilot project gets drafted into service.