US ATTACK: Networks hit, but telecom stays operational

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, telephone communication ground to a standstill along the upper Eastern Seaboard and internet traffic snarled major news websites.

          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, telephone communication ground to a standstill along the upper Eastern Seaboard and internet traffic snarled major news websites.

          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 9am local time in New York, even before US 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, DC, and Boston.

          By the time news reports told the world that the US Department of Defense Pentagon building, across the Potomac River from Washington DC, 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," says Mary Lou Ambrus, vice president for external communications and infrastructure at Lucent Technologies in Murray Hill, New Jersey. "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 and AT&T, there was simply no getting through.

          No wonder. At Cingular Wireless, a national mobile operator, network call traffic surged to 400% of its normal level from 10am to 11am, an Atlanta-based spokesman says.

          By late afternoon, major carriers, including WorldCom, were reporting that operations were running more smoothly, albeit under emergency procedures.

          Web hosting company Exodus Communications in Santa Clara, California, and AOL, the world's largest ISP based in Dulles, Virginia, near Washington, DC, 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," says Melissa Neumann, Exodus public relations manager. The company has 44 data centres globally. She did not have information about extra assistance that might have been offered to large media sites that are Exodus customers.

          Perhaps the most affected news website was CNN.com, the online presence of the Cable News Network, which is part of the AOL Time Warner media empire. By shortly after 9am, 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 websites 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 says.

          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," says 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% of the companies went out of business because they had not properly backed up the records needed to reconstruct their businesses, he says, citing US Federal Bureau of Investigation data.

          US lawmakers might well call for heightened web surveillance measures, using technologies such as Carnivore and Echelon, the global telecommunication spy network that US 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 says, "there's going to be a lot of extreme things said."

          (Sam Costello in Boston and Stephen Lawson and Matt Berger in San Francisco contributed to this report.)

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More about AOLBushCable News NetworkCingular WirelessCNNEchelonExodusFederal Bureau of InvestigationInc.InterpactLawsonLucentLucent TechnologiesTime WarnerUS Federal Bureau of InvestigationWorldCom

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