After disasters, companies need alternate networks

Enterprises and mobile workers need to develop in-house network savvy and prepare plans for access to alternative communications systems now, according to both analysts and users. That way, if disaster strikes, stranded road warriors won't have to scramble to stay connected while away from the office.

Those recommendations come in the wake of last week's terrorist attacks, which forced companies and their employees to rely on ad hoc networks to stay in touch.

At the simplest, this will mean "traveling with more than one network," said Craig Mathias, an analyst at the Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass. It's especially important to have a wireless data backup system to replace cellular voice networks. Such networks quickly became overwhelmed by traffic in the hours immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, just outside Washington.

That was the experience of Adam Broun, a Boston-based partner in the New York-based financial services group Deloitte Consulting. He said the only service he could use at the time was mobile e-mail through a BlackBerry pager operating on the packet data network of the Cingular Interactive unit of Cingular Wireless in Atlanta.

Cingular Interactive operates nationwide on separate frequencies and has different wired connections than the Cingular Wireless voice network, a spokesman said. That's why the Interactive network functioned while the voice network became clogged with calls.

Broun called his Cingular Interactive service "the most reliable means of communications" after the disaster, adding that he used his BlackBerry to direct colleagues trapped in the financial district to a car he had rented for them in Brooklyn -- including how to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and directions on getting out of the borough.

Enterprises and users also need to educate themselves about the utility of Short Message Service (SMS). Widely used throughout the rest of the world, SMS is still "a bit of sleeper" in the U.S., said Greg Pinter, vice president of Mobile Way Inc. in San Ramon, Calif. Mobile Way is an aggregator of SMS services that resells them to companies such as airlines, which then use them for passenger notification.

SMS, offered by all the major U.S. carriers except Sprint PCS Group, is ideally suited for brief messages such as "I'm OK," that many users and enterprises sent last week. Since SMS operates in the digital control channel of cellular voice networks, SMS messages managed to get through those networks when voice calls could not, according to Danielle Perry, a spokeswoman for AT&T Wireless in Redmond, Wash.

Perry said that SMS traffic on the AT&T Wireless network showed a significant increase more than the normal 1 million messages handled a day. Pinter estimated that AT&T alone carried 20 to 30 times its normal volume on the day of the attacks.

Mathias said the experiences of frustrated travelers stranded in hotels last week with low-speed dial-up connections should serve to spur a new hotel booking priority: access to high-speed wired or wireless LAN networks. "I'd pay anything for broadband access in a hotel," Mathias said.

Public access wireless LANs such as those operated by Wayport Inc. in Austin, Texas, and MobileStar Network Corp. in Richardson, Texas, both offer service in hotels and airports and should do well in an environment when enterprises and individual users begin beefing up network alternatives.

But, Mathias said, costs eventually will be a determining factor, because multiple alternative networks bring with them "hefty charges" of from US$29.95 to $49.95 per network per employee per month.

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