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9/11 and the Internet: Limits and opportunities

The other, personal Internet

Web sites, of course, are only one part of the Internet. As we especially learned on 9/11, communications is the other. New York's downtown cellphone network being heavily damaged, email and instant messaging became the only way to stay in contact with family, friends and colleagues.

Major carriers did not lose service, but the sheer volume of calls into and out of the New York and Washington metropolitan areas overloaded existing capacities. Verizon, New York City's largest voice and data communications carrier, said that ten wireless base stations in Lower Manhattan had been destroyed as a result of the attacks. Media reports stated that it took Verizon and Sprint two days to bring in mobile base stations to provide emergency communication capacity. Four permanent stations were still out of order that day, limiting mobile communications capacity significantly.

Research firm Computer Economics estimated that the total cost of repairing the damaged and destroyed telecommunications infrastructure as well as providing emergency communication services totaled a staggering $15.8 billion.

The damage affected Internet Service Providers as well. For example, AOL claimed that it had lost several hundred dial-up connections on 9/11 and the following days. However, the fact that the backbone of the Internet was operational, provided probably the most reliable way for people to communicate with each other during the events of 9/11.

Email became a godsend especially for New Yorkers who needed to reach loved ones. Chat rooms and forums enabled people exchange information and their frustration. And instant messaging saw its first use in a situation of crisis. The major services from Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL saw record traffic, with AOL's AIM jumping to 700 million messages in one day.

In a time when broadband Internet connections were just being installed around the country and dial-up connections were standard, a huge number of people suddenly discovered the Internet as essential communications tool. Researchers for the Pew Internet & American Life Project estimate that "between 4-5 million people who turned to the Internet because the phones weren't working well enough for them."