Out Of The Ashes

A vibrant commercial center, equipped to meet the high-tech demands of 21st-century business, will likely rise from the rubble of New York's World Trade Center.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

January 4, 2002

8 Min Read

Crews still carefully sift through the twisted debris at Ground Zero, their work a testament to the deep psychic wound our country bears since Sept. 11. But Americans--a fundamentally optimistic bunch--are already imagining what may someday replace this wretched scene: a vibrant commercial and residential center with, of course, a memorial to one of the saddest days in history.

Few decisions or plans have been made for the redevelopment of downtown Manhattan and the former World Trade Center complex, but business leaders, developers, planners, academics, and government officials are discussing their visions for restoring the area. With 100,000 workers displaced by the terrorist attacks and 29 million square feet of office space--a third of downtown's total--destroyed, a top priority is to attract businesses back to lower Manhattan.

Along with financial incentives and improvements to transportation and energy infrastructure, a crucial part of luring companies to the area will be rebuilding a robust communications infrastructure and office space equipped to support the high-tech demands of 21st-century business.

On-site videoconferencing and distance-learning facilities, wireless broadband services, high-bandwidth optical fiber, redundant power and communication lines, and access to a physically diverse network infrastructure made up of multiple, competing telecommunications carriers aren't just items on someone's wish list. They're components of the technology infrastructure businesses say are must-haves in a post-Sept. 11 world. "There needs to be a mind-set among developers, city and state government, and telecommunications providers, if this area will be a vibrant economic center, that they need to wire the area for 21st-century business needs," says Jonathan Bowles, research director at the Center for an Urban Future, an economic think tank on Wall Street.

Some say the developers who are charged with rebuilding the World Trade Center complex should look to Rudin Management Co. for a model of downtown office space. The company owns 55 Broad St., a 1960s building in downtown Manhattan that it converted into a premier high-tech office facility, known as the New York Information Technology Center. Among the amenities at the building are a 24,000-square-foot digital videoconferencing facility that can be leased by companies to host events or distance-learning seminars.

Videoconferencing is more often being looked at as an alternative to travel for selected situations, says Christine Perey, president of Perey Research and Consulting. The more it's used, the more likely that it will be considered a long-term substitute for events or training where person-to-person contact isn't essential, she says. Removing infrastructure responsibilities from the corporate customer as Rudin has done will be a trend in 2002, Perey says, noting that network services companies are already starting to offer videoconferencing as part of their Internet and broadband services packages.

The Information Technology Center was conceived as a way of offering tenants telecommunications as a basic building service and providing them with plug-in access to multiple communications providers. The building is served by 14 voice and data carriers, and tenants can access the Internet or corporate networks over DS-3 lines, fractional T1 lines, fiber-optic cable, high-speed category 5 copper wire, or satellite links. Ericsson, IBM, Sun Microsystems, and other technology companies are among the businesses in the building.

"The building is wired. It made it easy for us to move in and get working right away," says Steve Arees, VP of business development at Rave Software, a tenant in the building. In the future, this type of high-tech infrastructure will be expected by tenants in other office space, especially new buildings as high-profile as those that are likely to be constructed at the World Trade Center complex, Arees says. "You don't have to be a technology company to expect these services. If you work on the Internet or need high-speed access, you'll expect these services offered as part of the building's infrastructure."

Rudin charges premium rent for space in the building, but John Gilbert, chief operating officer and chief technology officer of Rudin Management, says tenants save money because they don't have to do so much infrastructure work.

"That's very attractive, especially for small businesses that don't have the up-front cash to invest," says Kathryn Wylde, president of the New York City Partnership, an advocacy group for the city's business community. "Rudin is way out in front in what will become more of a precondition for a commercial office building than an amenity." Urban planners say the demographics of lower Manhattan have steadily shifted during the last decade toward more small businesses and high-tech startups, as many large financial firms such as Morgan Stanley migrated to mid-town. The terrorist attacks are likely to accelerate that trend as big banks decentralize operations.

None of 55 Broad St.'s tenants lost access to their data networks on Sept. 11, Gilbert says, because they were tied into the fiber-optic networks of carriers other than Verizon Communications Inc. A few tenants who subscribed to Verizon for voice services lost those services for a day, but within 24 hours they were able to switch to other voice carriers serving the building, he says.

Many businesses in the affected area couldn't say the same, and the communications fallout from that day is causing observers to question how best to rebuild the city's underlying communications infrastructure.

"What we've seen with Sept. 11 is that communications infrastructure is one of the most important business services, but we had all kinds of problems with that," says Sharon Greenberger, VP for economic development at The Alliance for Downtown New York, a group that represents the interests of small businesses in the area. "Everything was too interconnected; everything went back to Verizon. It showed us that having competitive services that tie back to one network infrastructure is a problem."

Verizon, the second largest telecommunications company in the country and the dominant provider of voice and data services in New York City, was struck particularly hard by the attacks. A central switching center at 140 West St. was disabled by the collapse of the twin towers across the street, cutting off voice and data services to 14,000 businesses and thousands of residents in lower Manhattan. The Verizon facility shared its infrastructure with some 40 competitive local exchange carriers, whose services were similarly affected.

Winstar Communications Inc., the now-bankrupt local carrier and provider of fixed wireless broadband services, said at a Senate hearing last month on the technology sector's response in times of crisis that many downtown companies discovered holes in their contingency plans. While they had redundant lines running from their buildings, those lines converged at the same routing center--Verizon's crippled 140 West St. facility--culminating in a massive single point of failure. "Hard lessons were learned by major users of information technology," said Timothy Graham, executive VP and general counsel of Winstar at the hearing.

Verizon says it has restored most of its data and voice services to customers, though some businesses, particularly those with point-to-point circuits, remain without service or have degraded service. Verizon is working to fix that and to diversify its network, to make it less vulnerable to damage (see "Back Online"). "We're great proponents of diversity," says Charles Gunderson, a Verizon engineer and a member of the 140 West St. restoration team.

"A big piece of this is a challenge to Verizon itself to create redundancy in its network," says New York City Partnership's Wylde. "They're the strongest and largest player."

Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield designed its systems with redundancy in mind, CIO Galvin says. It has offices in five locations and uses wireless broadband in several spots.

Most companies in Manhattan that want to will be able to build redundant data networks capable of surviving an outage on one provider's network, although that survivability will come at some expense, say competitive carriers that operate in the city. "Once a network gets to a certain size and it's the backbone of the business, many customers routinely employ multivendor strategies," says Bill LaPerch, president of infrastructure at carrier Metromedia Fiber Network Inc. of New York. On the other hand, it's going to be some time before rivals can construct voice networks ubiquitous enough to serve as an effective backup to Verizon's network, says Dana Crowne, chief technology officer at Allegiance Telecom Inc. in Dallas.

Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield, a former tenant of One World Trade Center, believes in network diversity. The leading health-care insurer occupied 10 floors plus basement space in the twin towers. Michael Galvin, CIO of the insurer, says it designed IT systems for redundancy and reliability, with multiple voice and data carriers and data centers outside Manhattan, which made it possible for Empire Blue Cross to continue serving its 4.5 million customers despite the disaster.

Operations at its new offices may provide a glimpse of the future. The company is operating out of five locations, with most of the staff formerly housed at the World Trade Center in a Long Island office. Others are working in midtown and Brooklyn offices that the company set up since Sept. 11. To quickly connect the new locations to enterprise systems and meet bandwidth requirements at existing offices, it has installed wireless broadband services from AT&T that use rooftop microwave technology in several locations. "We live in a different world today," Galvin says. "Sept. 11 proved anything is possible. You have to think about having mechanisms of communication other than underground fiber and copper."

-- with Marianne Kolbasuk McGee and John Rendleman

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights