Telecom Firms Respond To U.S. Disaster

From hastily installed cellular towers and Internet ports to a truckload of teddy bears, Canadian telecommunication companies faced unlikely challenges as the effects of Tuesday’s terrorist attacks rippled through the country’s communication networks.

In Atlantic Canada, Aliant Telecom Inc. invoked emergency operations procedures, including setting up a command post in Halifax linking the four Atlantic telecom companies and government agencies, and a request for customers to curb their usage, said Jeff King, the company’s St. John’s-based director of engineering.

“I would say the first area we saw with any significant network loads was actually the Internet. On [Tuesday] morning at 10 or 11 o’clock (Atlantic) Internet traffic was starting to exceed capacity. I don’t have the information at my fingertips except to say that we probably doubled the throughput in the matter of an hour,” King said.

“We have two major traffic routes out of Atlantic Canada, one goes to central Canada and is distributed from there through Montreal and then Toronto, and the other goes south through New York (state). The New York traffic was completely at a standstill either because of extreme traffic loads in the U.S. or, more likely, because it might have been physically interrupted. I know that there was switching equipment in the Trade Centers, so when that service was destroyed it may have caused physical damage to the network,” King said.

In addition, the amount of network traffic in New York went well above the limits of the U.S. network to handle it, and as a result, our access into the U.S. was limited, he explained.

However, by 2 p.m. Eastern Aliant had added capacity to its central Canada route and dynamically rerouted 200Mbps to 300Mps of data away from the New York route, King said. “From that time onward,” he added, “there were no significant IP traffic routing problems in Atlantic Canada.”

The busiest phone day of any year is always Mother’s Day, when Aliant handles 1.2 million calls in Halifax. However on Tuesday, King said, the city’s exchanges handled an astonishing 2.3 million calls.

In Western Canada, Telus Corp. moved its voice and data networks to “condition Orange plus one” early Tuesday morning, a heightened state of awareness that suspended all planned maintenance and provisioning activities that could have compromised the system in any way, said Nick Culo, a company spokesperson based in Edmonton.

“On the security side, as of early Tuesday, our network and administrative buildings had restricted access, only Telus employees are allowed into these buildings, and our emergency operation centre was put in place,” Culo said.

The biggest challenge for Eastern Canada’s line and wireless phone system came after 130 to 140 airplanes, unable to land in the United States, started to touch down all over Atlantic Canada and as many as 25,000 distressed travellers started using cell phones, King said.

“In Halifax, all our cell sites were [at full channel capacity], so we actually had to physically install another cell tower in the area of the Halifax airport. We happened to have a cell site that was being prepared for installation elsewhere and in a couple of hours we were able to divert, install and power it up, using spare fibre capacity in the network,” he said.

“We monitored traffic regularly, and we were hitting the ceiling on available capacity in St. John’s, Gander and Halifax. But [on Wednesday], as people were diverted to various locations, the cellular traffic is high but manageable,” King said.

“You would hardly think that a serious incident in New York would impact Atlantic Canada so much, but when 25,000 people drop in unexpectedly, and they all have severe communication needs, it’s quite a logistical challenge to meet them,” he said.

In the west, where there were fewer stranded travellers, Culo said Telus’ wireless and Internet traffic was higher than normal, but added its networks have held up well.

“Yesterday we were telling people not to call New York unless it was an emergency because the number of calls going into New York were being restricted to protect the communications system. Other than that we are working with (government and relief) agencies to get mobility phones distributed to the passengers,” he said.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Culo told IT World Canada that after meeting with Industry Canada, Telus had downgraded its alert status to “Condition Blue” – signifying a “delicate or strained international situation which affects or could affect the security of North America.”

“For the most part that means that Telus is back to business as usual with the exception of heightened awareness around some of our critical customers and traffic routes. This condition will continue until Thursday morning at which time the situation will be reassessed,” he said.

King also reported that Aliant was also experiencing very high, but manageable loads on its landlines, especially to overseas locations such as Greece, Russia and the Ukraine.

King noted that Aliant was also pleased to have met another rather unusual challenge brought on by Tuesday’s unlikely events.

“The Telephone Pioneers, the volunteer arm of our industry, actually has a program that provides help to children in hospitals. So when we got a request from one of the hotelling locations with 300 or 400 people in it for teddy bears – because the children needed some comforting – we actually sent all the bears we had over to them.”

Telus Corp. is at

Aliant is at

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