Within moments after word went out on television and by word of mouth that airplanes had slammed into the World Trade Center towers in New York on Tuesday morning, telephone communication ground to a standstill along the upper Eastern Seaboard and Internet traffic snarled major news Web sites.
By late afternoon however, it was clear that although communication had been disrupted, uncounted lives lost, and financial markets closed, the nation’s telecommunication infrastructure was essentially operational.
Right after 9 a.m. local time in New York, even before U.S. President George W. Bush confirmed the worst fears that the attacks were the apparent orchestrated effort of terrorists, it became impossible to get a phone call out of or into New York and other major East Coast cities, including Washington, D.C., and Boston.
By the time news reports told the world that the U.S. Department of Defense Pentagon building, across the Potomac River from Washington D.C., had been hit by a third hijacked airliner less than an hour after the World Trade Center attacks, officials were urging residents to stop making phone calls over both land lines and cellular phones to keep lines free for emergency calls and for those frantically trying to contact loved ones in the affected cities.
Some carriers, Internet service providers (ISPs) and network vendors put security precautions into place, closely checking employee identification cards or enacting other measures that most declined to specify.
“At this point, we’re primarily focused on the safety and security of our employees,” said Mary Lou Ambrus, vice president for external communications and infrastructure at Lucent Technologies Inc. in Murray Hill, N.J. “We’re accommodating them based on their needs and their concerns.”
For some IT vendors and carriers, such accommodations meant sending people home. Across the country, switchboard and voicemail messages relayed word that employees had gone home because of the tragedy. Many companies issued press release statements and declined further comment. At the headquarters of companies like WorldCom Inc. and AT&T Corp., there was simply no getting through.
No wonder. At Cingular Wireless Inc., a national U.S. mobile operator, network call traffic surged to 400 percent of its normal level from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., an Atlanta-based spokesman said.
By late afternoon, major carriers, including WorldCom, were reporting that operations were running more smoothly, albeit under emergency procedures.
Verizon, a local fixed-line and cellular carrier that serves both Washington and New York, among other cities, said calls to the area doubled from their normal peak volumes of 115 million in New York and 35 million in Washington in the wake of the incidents. Traffic on the cellular network was running between 50 per cent and 100 per cent above normal levels, and its directory assistance and operator services were also overwhelmed, the company said in a statement.
Adding to the problems for cell phone users are as many as 10 base station sites that are not working at present, mainly because they used connections to land lines that went through the World Trade Center, Verizon said. The carrier is redirecting cell sites in New Jersey to serve lower Manhattan and will have a temporary cell site in Liberty State Park in New Jersey on line by 10 p.m. local time Tuesday, it said. Other temporary cell sites are on standby to be deployed to the area.
Verizon added that most of its 488 employees who work on the lower floors of the North Tower of the World Trade Center complex had been accounted for by late Tuesday.
Carrier response to the emergency extended beyond U.S. shores. France Telecom put in place a system to regulate the flow of calls to and from the U.S., in response to a request from U.S. carriers, the French carrier said. It also requested customers not to make non-emergency calls to the U.S.
Beginning at about 3:30 p.m. Paris time (9:30 a.m. New York time), traffic toward the U.S. was disrupted because of the attacks, the French carrier reported. The Internet was not disrupted, it added.
At 11 p.m. Taipei time (11 a.m. New York time) on Tuesday, the international division of Taiwan’s dominant telecommunciation carrier, Chunghwa Telecom Co. Ltd. International Business Group (CHTI), was handling 50,000 calls to the U.S. every five minutes, with a successful connection rate of less than 10 percent for all attempted calls, said Cheng Luh, vice president of CHTI. By 3 a.m. local time Wednesday, the company had seen its completion rate rise to around 30 percent while the volume of calls remained high, he said.
However, connection problems persisted through Wednesday morning, Taipei time.
“We have enough (international telephone) circuits but it’s very difficult to get connected to the local network in the U.S.,” Cheng said. The problem was most severe for calls between Taiwan and New York, where the local telecommunication infrastructure has been overloaded by calls, he said.
Web hosting company Exodus Communications Inc. in Santa Clara, California, and AOL Inc., the world’s largest ISP based in Dulles, Virginia, near Washington, D.C., both reported that operations were not affected although Net traffic surged.
“We have increased security at all of our data centers worldwide and are continuing to monitor the situation,” said Melissa Neumann, Exodus public relations manager. The company has 44 data centers globally. She did not have information about extra assistance that might have been offered to large media sites that are Exodus customers.
However, a broadband POP (point of presence) for national ISP Earthlink Inc., one of two in New York City, had lost connectivity, the company said Tuesday afternoon. Some of the ISP’s dialup POPs in New York also were down, said Steve Dougherty, director of systems vendor management.
Perhaps the most affected news Web site was CNN.com, the online presence of the Cable News Network, which is part of the AOL Time Warner Inc. media empire. By shortly after 9 a.m. on Tuesday, those looking for news could reach the site only sporadically. The company responded by stripping graphics and links from the home page and boosting bandwidth. By late afternoon, the site was fully accessible, as were Web sites of other major media outlets, including those of The Washington Post and The New York Times, both of which provided frequent updates.
The spike in Internet use was, in fact, “relatively short-lived,” according to Matrix.Net, which measures Internet performance. IP (Internet Protocol) traffic returned to “near-normal performance levels within about an hour” after the spike in traffic shortly after the attacks occurred, said the Austin, Texax-based company. The Internet, “appears to have survived a severe test of the adaptable traffic routing concepts it embodies,” the company said.
However, as the hours went by and a calmer sense began to prevail, the long-range ramifications on IT started to take focus.
“The face of America changes as of today. The face of IT is going to change,” said Winn Schwartau, president of Interpact Inc., and an author on computer security. “A lot of people like to separate the physical and the virtual, they’re not (separate).”
Of course, businesses that had offices in the World Trade Center have been immediately affected. After the 1993 terrorist bombing there, 26 per cent of the companies went out of business because they had not properly backed up the records needed to reconstruct their businesses, he said, citing U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation data.
U.S. lawmakers might well call for heightened Web surveillance measures, using technologies such as Carnivore and Echelon, the global telecommunication spy network that U.S. officials have long denied exists. One common refrain throughout the day was the question of how government security officials could not have known that such an extreme attack was being planned and why it was not stopped.
Asked about the likelihood that Tuesday’s terrorism will usher in an era of spying technologies, Schwartau said, “there’s going to be a lot of extreme things said.”
(Sam Costello in Boston and Stephen Lawson and Matt Berger in San Francisco and Martyn Williams in Tokyo and Sumner Lemon in Taipei contributed to this report.)