Companies turn to messaging in New York crisis

With cellular networks being flooded with calls Tuesday following the apparent terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., a number of companies turned to messaging systems – running predominately over IP (Internet Protocol) – to communicate with their employees and check on workers’ well-being.

An air of depression hovered over attendees at a CTIA (Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association) event held in San Diego, but the group turned to the very technology they have helped create to contact workers in the affected areas and elsewhere. A number of vendors here touted the power of text messages and wireless modems as a way to avoid clogged cellular networks.

“It is not just about voice anymore,” said Tom Wheeler, president and CEO of the CTIA, in an interview. “This conference is about moving beyond voice.”

Wheeler delivered a heartfelt message during the opening session of the conference and praised the performance of cellular communications in helping people check on their families and organize relief efforts. He also celebrated the increasing power that data is playing in keeping the world connected.

Similarly, employees of Wireless Knowledge Inc. were thankful that their own software helped them check on workers in the company’s New York office, located near Times Square. Early Tuesday morning the vendor sent out a data message to all employees, asking them to respond with their whereabouts via text message, either by PC, cell phone, handheld or two-way pager, said Jeff Ross, director of business development at Wireless Knowledge.

“It was sort of a virtual roll call,” Ross said.

Although Ross had difficulty joining into conference calls arranged with an unnamed carrier due to network congestion, his company was able to conduct this large scale data-based check-in.

Prodigy Communications LP set up a similar service open to the general public, creating an online message center that allows users to notify others of their name and location and send a brief message. The “I’m Okay” Message Center can be accessed via Users can go to the site and search for friends or family by name.

Another company present at the CTIA event also used its own wireless modem technology to contact employees and check on their safety.

“Communications over phones were proving to be challenging,” said Andrew Harries, senior vice president of corporate development at Sierra Wireless Inc. “While the phone systems have been overloaded, we have been able to keep in touch. The Internet has a much greater capacity to handle the communications.”

Sierra Wireless workers turned to their PDAs (personal digital assistants) with wireless modems attached to send e-mails and text messages to each other over IP instead of using cellular networks.

One other user was able to use the cellular networks but sent smaller data-based communications instead of relying on voice communications.

After he could not place calls from his hotel this morning, Alan Wragg, senior vice president of corporate development at Iris Wireless LLC began sending out short text messages that had to travel over numerous carriers networks to reach their final destination. U.S. carriers do not currently support the same protocols for sending these short messages, prompting Iris to develop software that can solve the interoperability problems, Wragg said.

“[The messages] have been the way we communicated all day,” he said.

Nortel Networks Inc. also donated 5,000 cell phones to the New York and Washington areas to help people communicate. The phones use a two-way direct connect technology, in addition to standard phone communications, that allows users to send quick bursts of voice communication over the network instead of tying up a line during a conversation, according to Travis Larson, a CTIA spokesman familiar with Nortel’s technology.