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Internet, phone use cripple system

Major phone providers reported double the usual volume, while Internet and e-mail connections slowed to a crawl.

By JEFF HARRINGTON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 12, 2001


From cell phones to land lines to the Internet, America's communication network was crippled Tuesday at the moment Americans needed it most to reach out and touch each other.

As the terrorist attacks unfolded, a surge in phone traffic swamped networks of major providers such as Verizon and AT&T. Both reported call volume more than double the usual.

In the Tampa Bay area, callers had trouble placing both local and long distance calls, especially during the morning. Seeking information off the Internet was an equally frustrating exercise, with the most popular online news sites either slow or inaccessible for hours.

Turning to e-mail was no sure solution either, especially to addresses in New York City. AOL's dial-up connections in New York were often busy, and America Online's Instant Messenger service was sporadic.

Among the big phone providers, AT&T handles 300-million long distance calls during an average business day, and up to 325-million on peak days. "The volume we were experiencing today was about twice that," AT&T Florida spokesman Gus Alfonso said.

Verizon's network stretching throughout the East Coast was likewise affected.

As a provider of local, long-distance, wireless and Internet services, Verizon handles 73.82-million phone and data calls in the bay area on a typical business day. Tuesday's volume was anything but typical.

"There's no way the network can possibly handle that type of volume," said Verizon spokesman Bob Elek. "It's not uncommon when you have a disaster or tragedy of this sort. After the earthquake in the state of Washington, we had a similar experience with call volumes."

By mid-afternoon, Verizon said the worst of the traffic surge had subsided.

Among cell phone providers, Kelly Starling of AT&T Wireless said some callers were receiving fast busy signals -- the sign of an overloaded network -- when they tried to call areas impacted by the attacks.

But the local wireless network hasn't been affected at all, she said. "We haven't had any problems in Florida ... with increased traffic on the network," she said.

"Our network has operated at near-record call volume all day locally," said Chuck Hamby, a Verizon Wireless spokesman in Tampa. "It's comparable to this year's Super Bowl and Gasparilla weekend combined."

Any disruption for bay area callers paled in comparison to what was happening in New York City. Dazed survivors of the World Trade Center disaster walked the dusty streets, trying in vain to make connections on their cell phones.

The World Trade Center towers, which symbolized New York's financial prowess, also housed equipment and antennas that transmitted millions of calls each day. Sprint said the loss of leased landline equipment under one of the buildings was blocking 75,000 long distance calls.

On the World Wide Web, MSNBC.com, the most popular news site, removed graphics from the site to allow users to access the news faster, according to spokesman Ben Billingsley.

The Internet search engine Google directed news seekers to radio and television. "Many online news services are not available, because of extremely high demand," a statement read on its home page.

- Information from Times staff writer Dave Gussow and the Associated Press was used in this report.

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