What went right: How the industry's commitment to reliability served the country well in the wake of terrorists' attacks

Oct. 19, 2001--EXCLUSIVE--The magnitude of the September 11 tragedy still remains incomprehensible. While the loss of telecommunications services seems trivial compared to the loss of life, the communications infrastructure played a vital role in aiding rescue and recovery.

By Robert Smialek, CEO, Applied Innovation

The magnitude of the September 11 tragedy still remains incomprehensible. While the loss of telecommunications services seems trivial compared to the loss of life, the communications infrastructure played a vital role in aiding rescue and recovery, reassuring loved ones, providing information to the world and, ultimately, helping the country get back to business.

Just as this tragedy told us something very important about the country in which we live -- that its people are strong in spirit and quick to put aside their differences and unite in times of crisis -- it also told us some things about the communications industry and the infrastructure it has helped build.

Service providers responded in ways that deserve our respect and appreciation. Like the country as a whole, they put aside competitive differences to restore service as quickly as possible. Throughout the weeks following the tragedy they have worked hard to minimize the loss of service and have communicated diligently regarding the extent of the damage and the status of their recovery efforts. Both Verizon (www.verizon.com) and AT&T (www.att.com) have made detailed information on the tragedy and its impact available through their Web sites.

Verizon, in particular, has been widely praised for its extraordinary efforts to enable the resumption of stock trading on September 17, helping to minimize the long-term economic impact of the tragedy. While we may not have liked the direction the market took that week, those of us in the industry had to be impressed that the systems were able to handle exceptionally high trading volumes without a glitch following the destruction of the switching station that had served the exchanges. The service specialists who worked long hours in extremely difficult conditions to make this possible are just some of the many behind-the-scenes heroes that emerged in the wake of this tragedy.

While damage to equipment in New York City and in the Pentagon was substantial, the impact on service was not as severe as many unfamiliar with telecommunications architectures and reliability standards might have expected.

This proved particularly important as the two targets were our country's financial hub and the center of its military operations. Widespread service problems could have been crippling. Instead, service outages in New York were limited to the area immediately around ground zero, while, at the Pentagon, which experienced damage to two-fifths of its structure, the military's command and control communications remained intact, as did its classified and non-classified Intranets.

The Internet, which was originally conceived as a U.S. Defense Department project, was virtually unaffected. It strained somewhat under the heavy traffic -- some news sites were unavailable for several hours following the initial impact due to extraordinary demand -- however, email flow remained uninterrupted.

There are a number of reasons the infrastructure was able to hold up so well following such an unimaginable disaster, but they all boil down to a single fact: the telecommunications industry has consistently taken disaster prevention and recovery very seriously.

Networks are routinely designed to avoid a single point of failure and re-route traffic almost instantaneously in the event of failure. Redundancy is built into the network everywhere possible including the transport equipment, power systems, management platforms, facilities and physical wiring. Minimal standards for reliability within the telephone networks include 99.999 percent availability, which translates into only five minutes of downtime per year of operation.

In addition, the emergence of the Internet and wireless have, in a sense, added an extra layer of redundancy and increased capacity to the network. Many users who lost wireline services were still able to rely on wireless services or the Internet and vice-versa.

The adherence to NEBS standards also served the industry well. NEBS sets strict standards for reliability and fault tolerance, including fire containment within equipment. These standards have been criticized as unnecessary and extreme by some newcomers to the industry within the last several years. They may indeed be extreme, but as these events show, that is exactly the point.

We were all devastated by what happened on September 11, but the fact that we had a robust, fault tolerant communications infrastructure allowed us to respond faster to those impacted by the disaster and to minimize its long-term financial impact. That says something good about our industry. We were prepared for a "worst case" scenario -- we just never imagined how truly awful "worst case" could be.

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