Wall Street struggles to renew connections with rest of the world

Collateral damage: The World Trade Center attacks crippled Wall Street's ability to communicate. They've also united telecom firms in repairing the damage.

September 16, 2001|By Andrew Ratner and Stacey Hirsh | By Andrew Ratner and Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

Rich Wetmore, a retired telecommunications executive, watched his industry rebuild phone and computer networks after the devastating Mexico City earthquake in 1985 and the 1993 bombing of New York City's World Trade Center. The credo was the same: Take stock of what works, salvage what you can, then set priorities on what to fix first.

This is different.

"The unusual dimension is the proximity of the financial center," said Wetmore, 46, who recently left Lucent Technologies Inc. and previously managed network operations for AT&T Corp. "There is an unusually dense communications infrastructure in place."

The task of rebuilding that infrastructure in New York's financial district, described as one of the most telecommunications-intensive areas in the world, will indeed be monumental.

Water and suffocating dust have damaged communications equipment in the 16-block area of devastation around the former World Trade Center complex.

Repair crews are racing the clock this weekend to reroute phone and computer networks to enable Wall Street - and the global economy - to get back on its feet after Tuesday's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Company officials are reluctant to talk much about the cost of repairs estimated to run well into the millions, or the time it will take to repair and replace equipment. They admit they won't know the extent of damage for weeks, until businesses begin to return to the war-torn zone of glass and steel high-rises.

The World Trade Center, nexus for thousands of those lines, is gone. While fiber-optic cable crews patch around the damaged area, some providers will share space on rival networks.

"It's going to take an awful lot of time because at this point they can't even begin to assess the extent of the damage," said Courtney Quinn, a senior analyst who covers communications companies for the Yankee Group in Boston.

Much - if not all - of the equipment will likely have to be replaced, said Quinn, who is preparing a report on the impact on communications networks and recovery efforts.

"We couldn't even begin to put a dollar amount on it because there's still so much that we don't know about the damage," he said.

Verizon Communications Inc., the largest telecommunications provider in the Northeast, remained stymied by flooding at its West Street service center near the trade center. Water main breaks and firefighting efforts drenched equipment. And pumps that normally blow air into circuits to keep them dry weren't working because the electricity was cut off.

That office on West Street handles nearly half of the 500,000 phone lines in Lower Manhattan, including about a fifth of the private phone circuits for the New York Stock Exchange.

Another Verizon office almost a mile to the southeast on Broad Street, which was not damaged, provides the bulk of service to the New York and American stock exchanges.

"It's one thing to get the exchange up, but you've also got to get the member firms served," said Jim Smith, a Verizon spokesman.

Verizon probably won't be able to tell the full extent of the damage until businesses return to the neighborhood and attempt to use phone service, said Eric Rabe, the company's vice president for media relations.

"There's a limit to what we can do until customers come back and tell us they're having trouble," Rabe said.

Rabe predicted that restoring telecommunications to the area wouldn't be the most daunting challenge. Air laden with asbestos dust, weakened streets and buildings and lack of transportation would hamper a return to work in the area as well, he said.

"Every telecommunications company in the country has contacted us to help," he said, including companies that have fought with Verizon for years on Capitol Hill over reforming the telephone industry. "The regulatory sniping for the moment has stopped. The industry is pulling together."

For example, XO Communications Inc. of Reston, Va., offered to let competitors such as Verizon and AT&T Corp. use its network equipment to keep cell phones in use, said Todd Wolfenbarger, an XO Communications spokesman.

Financial service and technology companies in the area are employing backup systems and plans they made a few years ago for Y2K, the feared millennium computer glitch that didn't turn out to be as bad as predicted.

"A lot of expertise earned during the Y2K preparation will become useful in whatever work needs to be done," said Dan Michaelis, a spokesman for the Securities Industry Association, which represents 700 securities firms.

On an Internet bulletin board posted by the nonprofit Wall Street Technology Association a day after the attack, numerous vendors of communications equipment posted their condolences to battered companies in Lower Manhattan - and offered their services. Some said they would repair equipment at little or no cost.

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