In Time Of Need, A Wireless LAN Came Through

In a worst-case scenario, when all other means of mobile communication had failed, one man was fortunate enough to be able to rely on an 802.11 connection.
Mike Daisey was sleep deprived when he staggered into a Starbucks in the shadow of the World Trade Center buildings about 7 a.m. on Sept. 11.

He had been writing all night in his Brooklyn apartment to finish preliminary chapters due that day for his book about his nearly two years of experience at Amazon.com.

As 6 a.m. rolled around, he realized he'd fall asleep if he stayed put. He headed to what he thought was a safe and quiet place to work: a Starbucks about halfway between his publisher's midtown offices and his temporary home. "I thought it would be very exciting to work there down in the financial district," he said, before his 11 a.m. appointment.

What happened next, of course, has occupied most of the world's attention for the last month. Daisey not only got out safely, but was able to contact his wife and family, and file reports of his experience to his several thousand person mailing list even while phone service had collapsed.

Wireless Internet service via 802.11b didn't save the day by any means, but the catastrophe in New York and D.C., as well as subsequent events of relocation and dislocation, have been aided by both the current wireless ISP deployment, and the ease of connecting nodes to existing networks.

Mike Daisey has been an aficionado of 802.11b service since discovering MobileStar's network almost accidentally at the Starbucks near his home base in Seattle's Capitol Hill. Daisey is a performer and writer who created "21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com," a hilarious one-man re-enactment of the dotcom buzz.

When he found his nearest Starbucks, a former Boston Chicken shop, had started its 802.11b network in test mode back in May, he sent me excited email about the number of bars of signal strength he could get inside and outside the store. MobileStar now has "unwired" most freestanding Starbucks in Seattle, San Francisco, Dallas, and New York.

Daisey is in New York working on a book based on his show, as well as performing. He finds it convenient to spend time live on the Internet researching, and, by extension, that puts him in a lot of Brooklyn Starbucks outlets.

After his work-filled night, he was pounding away on Sept. 11 at 8.47 a.m. on his Apple Titanium PowerBook in the Starbucks on the eastern tip of the WTC complex. He heard but didn't see the first and second planes strike the trade towers. When the second plane hit, "things really started falling apart, people really started losing their mind."

Daisey found himself in the street watching as the towers collapsed. "I had the reaction of, I didn't try to leave. I didn't really believe the towers would actually collapse. Honestly. I knew that it was bad and that we were all in trouble. I sort of saw it as something happened near me, but I wasn't under the towers. This is an awful thing I was bearing witness to, but it isn't happening to me.

"Then the towers collapsed, and that cloud came shooting down the street."

Daisey wound up shaken, covered in dust, but uninjured. His wife, back in Seattle, knew his appointment at his publisher wasn't until later in the day, and pictured him safe at home, he said. Meanwhile, with phones lines down and cell phone service out, he had no way to reach friends and family.

He was able to draft some email and send it via MobileStar's network, which was, at least at that point, oddly unaffected. (Later in the day on Sept. 11, when another building collapsed, Verizon and other phone companies lost a significant amount of their wired line capacity.)

His next goal was to get out of Manhattan, preferably by heading east toward the Brooklyn Bridge. He and another gentleman jumped into a cab commandeered by a true New Yorker. The driver took them as close to the bridge as he could, and then refused to take any money for the trip. Daisey later sent out two full reports wirelessly to a mailing list of several thousand people who follow his performances and musings.

Robert Kaiser, MobileStar's CEO, said Daisey's experience was unusual, but not unique. Kaiser said that part of each MobileStar installation involves an uninterruptible power supply (UPS), although they never envisioned this kind of interruption in service. MobileStar had wired a Starbucks in the bottom of one of the towers; several others within a few block radius were down temporarily.

Kaiser said that when Starbucks closed its stores on the day following the attacks, in many cases, "the store managers were out in front of the store with their laptops, and people would come up and ask" if they could email their family. The network was left on, as well, so that other users had access.

The company in conjunction with Starbucks opened their network for free use throughout New York from Sept. 15 to 22, and assisted people in using the Compaq machines already on site.

"I take pride in the fact that our network was up and running, and back here we were taking efforts to make sure it was up and running," Kaiser said.

MobileStar's only national competitor, Wayport, has a mix of wired and wireless installations in New York, primarily in hotels. "[Displaced] companies are relocating to some of our hotels in the meeting room space," said Dan Lowden, vice president of marketing. "We're working with those folks in the best way we can, to offer discounts. We're working with the hotels to make it all happen."

After the attack, free wireless filled in some other voids. The NYCWireless free network found its Washington Square Park node offline; this location is south of 14th street, which was part of the zone initially closed and with a variety of phone, data, and utility problems.

The group quickly rushed to assist companies that had lost wireline access by working with nearby businesses or existing nodes to extend wireless bridges. They were also able to set up a new node in Tompkins Square, which is in an area that continues to have telecommunications gaps. (The New York Times covered this and related effort: free registration required.)

In Washington, D.C., an 802.11b link was set up free of charge by a collection of firms to connect rescue workers and emergency officials at the Pentagon with a high-speed Internet link a few miles away.

As life began to get back to something approaching routine in New York, Mike Daisey's reports of his experience - found on his Web site - reached a larger audience than he intended. People forwarded his messages over and over, eventually reaching what he facetiously thought might be every single person in Seattle. He received over 5,000 emails in reply within just the first 10 days or so. (MobileStar even emailed him, he said, thanking him for being a customer.)

He answered every piece of email- including the 100 or so requests asking him for the name of his wireless ISP - which exhausted and drained him. Although he hoped it helped people to hear his first-person experiences, "I don't think I did anything that good - I think people will find comfort mostly from their love ones."

Mike Daisey finally managed to deliver his preliminary chapters about two weeks later. This time, however, he did it by email.






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