Net Up, Phones Busy in Blackout

But most large businesses would have been prepared to deal with massive outage, say analysts

August 16, 2003

4 Min Read
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While it's still early to assess how disruptive the blackout was for businesses, analysts say most large enterprises would have been well prepared to stay up and running in the wake of the widespread power outage that hit the Eastern U.S. and parts of Canada yesterday.

But this much is already clear: Once again, the Internet has proven to be more reliable than the telephone network. As they struggle today to recover from the power outage, customers who had access to the Internet over phone lines or other connections were able to stay in touch by email and instant messaging, while many voice circuits were snarled with traffic overloads resulting in busy signals.

John McKnight, senior analyst at Enterprise Storage Group Inc., says that, while "we haven't heard any horror stories yet" about businesses affected by the power outage, it will take at least until the weekend before many enterprises switch on their machines and survey the damage.

However, he says, most large companies should have been able to keep their data storage systems and servers online with either out-of-region backup plans or on-site generators.

"From a business continuity/disaster recovery planning perspective, a power outage such as yesterday's is one of the most basic contingencies that companies typically prepare for," he says. "Large enterprise-class data centers should certainly have been protected against yesterday's outage by backup generators and/or battery-powered UPS [uninterruptible power supply] systems." At the same time, he notes, smaller companies may have been much harder hit by the outage.Many businesses implemented disaster recovery (DR) plans in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks two years ago, McKnight says. "DR best-practices dictate that you really should have redundant systems in a separate data center -- whether your own or a service provider's -- that is on a separate power grid from your primary facility," he says. "The events of 9/11 really emphasized that requirement, and the outage yesterday will only reinforce it."

The major stock exchanges based in New York, including the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq, opened as scheduled this morning, although many traders could not commute into the city to report to work.

Meanwhile, all of the major U.S. Internet backbones from the 25 largest U.S. metropolitan areas continued to function normally following the blackout, according to Keynote Systems, an independent company that monitors Internet performance. Most major Websites remained accessible and at their normal performance levels. A few news sites, such as and, had minor availability problems at the outset of the blackout, said Keynote.

"I actually found out about the blackout before it hit any news sources via... one of my techs out in the field," writes Joel Perez, an IP engineer with Ntera, a facilities-based IP service provider headquartered in Florida, in an email today. "They lost all power and phone service. The only thing still running was his Internet connection at the PoP he was in at the moment!" Ntera lost several voice circuits in the Northeast, Perez says, but all Internet-based data links held firm.

Statements issued late yesterday by Bell Canada (NYSE/Toronto: BCE) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) boasted of minimal impact on the telecom networks. But in the case of many everyday customers in the New York area who could not get through on phone lines, the statements seemed to contradict reality.Verizon's statement last night said wireline and wireless services were "performing normally" and "fully operational," but warned of high call volumes, which apparently gave many users a busy signal in place of a dial tone.

Repeated calls to Verizon produced only busy signals this morning. Light Reading and Byte and Switch editors and family members, working from home in the New York City area, reported ongoing inability to communicate by wireline or cell phone.

Bell Canada's statement yesterday claimed its network "remained functional." This morning, though, the carrier issued another statement saying the network was functional and "99 percent of customers" had service. With 13 million lines in service, per Bell Canada's Website, that means at least 200,000 customers were without service.

A Bell Canada spokesman said he couldn't quantify the number of lines out, but asserted the carrier is "maintaining power to key facilities" for cell and wireline users.

The outage eliminated power in key cities in the public electrical grid from New York west to Ohio and Michigan and north into Ontario. It forced telecom networks into backup mode and drove up traffic on cellular and landline services, as distressed citizens everywhere took to the phones to call for help and contact relatives and coworkers.The cause hasn't been determined, though speculation centers on a series of cascading circuit failures and subsequent overloads on the grid. The North American Electric Reliability Council is holding a press conference this morning to discuss the issues so far.

According to that organization's Website, the outage is the largest to hit the continent since widespread outages hit the Western U.S. and Canada, affecting 7.5 million customers, in July 1996.

Mary Jander, Senior Editor, and R. Scott Raynovich, US Editor, Light Reading, with additional reporting by Todd Spangler, US Editor, Byte and Switch

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