Cell phones and the terrorist attacks

Disclaimer: I began writing this on Wednesday, Sept. 12, so the events from the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. (and the crash in Pennsylvania) were fresh in my memory.

Several things amazed me on that day, but one thing stuck out and is somewhat relevant to the world of mobile computing and technology: the role cell phones played in the events of Sept. 11.

I was at Boston's Logan Airport on Tuesday morning, planning to go down to the NetWorld+Interop show in Atlanta. My flight was scheduled to leave at 10:45 a.m., so I had arrived at the airport around 9:05. On the radio, they had just reported the second plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.

I still checked in, as the airline at that point hadn't received the order from the FAA to shut down. I had made my way down to the gate, when an announcement was made that the airport was closing and passengers needed to collect their luggage and leave.

At this point, about 90 percent of the people at the gate were on their cell phones. Once it became evident that the networks were overloaded, lines began to form at the payphones. On a normal business day at an airport, you only see a few dozen people talking on phones, but practically everyone was using their cell phones on Tuesday.

That's just a personal example, but others were far more dramatic. There were the stories about several plane passengers being able to make cell phone calls from the planes to try to get help, or to give information about the hijackers. Other stories told of how some people inside the rubble of the World Trade Center or surrounding area were able to call 911 to tell rescuers that they were still alive. Dramatic stuff, and all the results of the ownership of cell phones. There were even news reports that because of this, more people are expected to go out and buy cell phones, since they're no longer seen as a luxury, but a necessity.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that most of the major carriers had access problems, as usage soared and the networks couldn't keep up. In fact, with cell phone networks down, and landline access spotty, many people turned to the Internet (either via e-mail or instant messaging) to get the message out that they were safe. I even heard a story about someone using their BlackBerry device to alert rescuers.

But I can't criticize the carriers too much. No carrier should be expected to provide the type of capacity needed for such a spike in usage. It doesn't make business sense. Most carriers plan for a moderate increase in usage; to overplan to this extent would be too expensive. Furthermore, in New York, you had the additional problem of many cell phone towers located on top of the World Trade Center. While the destruction of the tower wasn't likely the cause of the slowdown in service (unprecedented usage still wins there), it couldn't have helped.

It also was amazing to see the cell phone industry respond, as many other industries did, to the rescue effort. Here's just a sampling, culled from news wires:

- Motorola shipped thousands of mobile radios, batteries, base stations and other equipment to New York and Washington, D.C.

- Verizon Wireless provided 5,000 mobile phones to emergency response officials.

- Nextel and AT&T Wireless loaned cell phones with unlimited service to federal, state and local agencies. Nextel also provided two-way radio service.

- Cingular Wireless donated 3,500 phones to the Pentagon.

- Sprint loaned out nearly 2,000 phones in New York, and 300 in Washington.

- The Sprint Foundation pledged $500,000 to the American Red Cross and offered the help of Sprint employees.

I'd like to hear from you on this. Tell me about your thoughts on the role of cell phones in today's society, or whether you used a cell phone on the 11th to either call someone or gather information. E-mail me at kshaw@nww.com

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