US ATTACK: Staying connected in a postattack IT world

During last week's tragic attacks in New York and Washington, mobile workers across the nation found themselves scrambling to make cellular connections work or scurrying to find new, inventive ways to get desktop work done on laptops or on handhelds equipped with e-mail.

With travelers stranded for several days on the road because all airports were closed, some workers found themselves unprepared for work in hotels or other places on the road. And that, they said, gave them a glimpse of what work might be like in the days ahead as the U.S. enters a new era of terrorism and a renewed focus on security.

Analysts said businesses can learn from what happened last week and get better prepared for keeping their employees in touch and productive.

One recommendation analysts made is for IT managers to make sure workers in critical positions who must travel have multiple ways of reaching the office, whether by voice or data connections.

"I think it makes lots of sense for people with critical jobs to have lots of ways to communicate, and it's a no-brainer to have at least two devices, such as a Research In Motion [RIM] e-mail device and a voice cell phone," said Alan Reiter, an analyst at Wireless Internet and Mobile Computing, in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

"If a land line fails, you can try a voice cell, and if that fails, you can try a data device," Reiter said.

Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Connecticut, predicted that there will be more demands to stay connected and said that "the use of an adjunct to the notebook will become more popular, not only for disaster but to keep connected continuously."

Dulaney said he drove home from the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association conference in San Diego last week with co-workers when he was unable to get a plane, and used a RIM BlackBerry handheld device for e-mail access. "I got all my e-mail done, and the others could not, although I could not process all my e-mail because some [of it] needed a larger screen," Dulaney said.

Reiter predicted that the attacks might even prompt airlines and rail businesses to make more services available via data connections, a move that could reduce reliance on call center agents.

"Imagine if I could have had my repeated flight cancellations pushed to me via e-mail last week," Dulaney said.

Three "road warriors" who were stranded in southern California last week said they wished they'd had more backup technology for simply keeping in touch and for more intensive functions such accessing database data.

Sheila Becker, regional director of compliance at SBA Inc. in Beverly, Massachusetts, said she only brought a cell phone to Los Angeles last Monday night, thinking she'd be there just one day at the Personal Communications Industry Association (PCIA) conference. The conference, like many across the nation, was canceled, and she ended up stranded at the Bonaventure Hotel until Saturday -- four days longer than she wanted.

"Not having a laptop was a huge problem," Becker said, because she couldn't do the tasks she's used to doing, such as working with spreadsheets and checking -- and cancelling -- appointments. She used her cell phone a lot but couldn't use it for e-mail, she said.

On her next trip, Becker vowed, she will take with her a lighter laptop and a phone that can be used for e-mail. As it turned out, she had to walk to Los Angeles International Airport on the shoulder of an interstate highway, dragging her luggage behind, because of traffic.

"In a way, I'm glad I didn't have the heavy laptop then," she said.

Richard Bonifasi, CEO of Antenna Sites Inc. in Scottsdale, Arizona, also showed up for PCIA and ended up driving home in a rental car. He used a cell phone on the Nextel Communications network and a handheld organizer, a Handspring Visor, to check his contact list. "I don't even use a laptop on trips, and this worked fine," he said, estimating that he made about 15 cell phone calls each day.

Meanwhile, Tony Sacchetti, a bioengineer at Tyco Healthcare in Mansfield, Massachusetts, said he was stranded in Southern California for several days as well but was able to work with the help of his laptop and its reliable battery power. "The laptop was a lifesaver that week," he said, estimating that he went online 20 times over four days for about 30 hours.

His laptop access via dial-up connections and security software allowed him access to spreadsheets and engineering drawings he uses to help make medical devices.

At the end of his trip, Sacchetti drove from San Diego to Los Angeles and then took a flight to Cincinnati. He drove from there to Columbus and then changed cars and drove to Pittsburgh, where he caught a flight to Providence, Rhode Island. At each stop, he used his laptop on battery power and a connection to a data port on a pay phone to download road maps from to help him find his route.

He had a cell phone, but "it has no modem to connect to the laptop," he said with a sigh. "But I'm O.K., and in the bigger scheme of things, that's what matters."

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