9/11: What Worked, What Didn't

9/11: What Worked, What Didn't

Blackberry pagers worked. Cellphones didn't.

DSL worked. Telephones on the same line didn't.

E-mail worked. Internet news sites didn't.

Cable and satellite TV worked. Streaming media didn't.

The big technology test came on the morning of Sept. 11. Terrorists had attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Thousands of people were missing. Americans wanted to communicate.

It was time to put up and shut up for "stay-in-touch" technology – an unexpected pop quiz for the gadgetry that's invaded our lives over the past decade. During those tense hours following the attack, people either connected or they didn't. Excuses didn't cut it.

At the end of the day, most communications technologies fared well, despite extensive destruction of equipment, damaged cables and loss of electrical power. Users quickly learned what worked and what didn't, navigating around damaged systems to find functioning alternatives.


New York City's wired phone system took a big hit. Verizon sustained equipment damage at key central offices, cutting off service in lower Manhattan and limiting it elsewhere throughout the city. In the hours after the tragedy, the national circuit-switched telephone network was hopelessly overloaded. Getting a line in the city was hit-and-miss for two days. In order to allow New Yorkers to use phones to call out, AT&T limited incoming long-distance calls.

For the most part, the packet-switched Internet kept on ticking, providing essential communications functions largely through e-mail and instant messaging. For New Yorkers outside the immediate disaster area, Verizon's DSL performed well on lines that could not be used to make conventional dial-up calls. However, power losses at several shared switching locations caused failures for some 7,000 Earthlink DSL customers. Those trying to connect to the Internet through dial-up lines suffered the same fate as voice callers.

Though cellphones provided some poignant last moments from hijacked airliners just before the attack, the technology collapsed in the following hours due to usage overload and destruction of equipment at more than 14 cell sites. A notable exception was text messaging.

On the evening of the attack, a displaced worker stood on an Upper West Side street corner pecking truncated words of assurance to co-workers on his cellphone keypad. "I never thought of text messaging before today," he said. "Now it's a lifeline."

During the days after the attack – a period of great stress and uncertainty – cellphone sales skyrocketed throughout the nation, according to wireless carriers. Stories of subscribers using portable phones to check on the well-being of family and friends touched a deep chord. In the New York area, lines formed at cellphone stores to purchase new service.

"Now everyone wants their wives and kids to have cellphones for security reasons," Thomas J. Lee, a managing director at J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., told the Wall Street Journal. "I think that the utility and importance of having a mobile phone has really been underscored."


Portable wireless e-mail devices, particularly the Blackberry from Research in Motion (RIM) of Waterloo, Ontario, got rave reviews for reliable performance. Blackberry pagers connect to the Internet through wireless data networks operated by Cingular Wireless of Atlanta and Motient Corp. of Reston, Va. There were remarkable stories of Blackberry owners who used the technology to evacuate employees and stay in touch when no other communications technology was available.

Other wireless e-mail systems weren't as reliable. There were reports that Skytel lost 30 percent of its capacity while Arch Wireless lost five of its frequencies, interrupting service to some 50,000 users.

Though the Internet proved a more dependable two-way communications technology than telephony on Sept. 11, it was far from perfect. "The Internet proved a very important medium for allowing people to exchange that one-bit "I'm O.K." message with loved ones. However, it was very clear that the Net, like the phones, relies on central backbones, which can still be weak links," said Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, in an interview with Interactive Week.

"I'd like to see the Web integrated with peer-to-peer protocols to make the whole infrastructure more resilient," Berners-Lee said.

Perhaps the most glaring weakness of the Internet was its inability to deliver news to large numbers of simultaneous users in the hours after the attack. Major news sites such as CNN.com, MSNBC, The New York Times and the Associated Press were mostly inaccessible. Even when one got through, the sites were extremely slow. Streaming media access generally failed.

Early indications are that fear caused by the disaster will boost two Internet-enabled services – off-site data storage and videoconferencing – in the coming months.

Services providing off-site data backups got a new look, both from businesses and individuals who saw a new fragility in their current systems. Since the dot.com crash, most free personal data backup sites have disappeared. A notable exception is Apple's free Web-based iTools, which offers Macintosh users 20 megabytes of data storage. Fee-based data storage services for business and individuals are offered by companies such as Backjack (http://www.backjack.com), @Backup (http://www.backup.com) and Netmass SystemSafe (http://www.systemrestore.com).


Anxiety over flying and fewer flight options are generating new interest in videoconferencing that uses Internet connections. Virtual meeting services are offered by such companies as WebEx.com, PlaceWare.com and Centra.com.

A slowing global economy this year had already begun to shake out frivolous communications technology. The events of Sept. 11 will probably finish the job. Look for a refocus of interest on improving what worked and abandoning what didn't.

Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.