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'Net Insider:

Will we be able to restore in the future?

By Scott Bradner
Network World, 10/29/01            

Verizon did an amazing job of partial restoration after the company's switching center at 140 West St. in New York was damaged and the switching equipment went down when the World Trade Center towers collapsed. But will Verizon or any other telecommunications company be ready to undertake the same sort of restoration effort in the future?

The Verizon center at 140 West St. is the telecommunications hub of lower Manhattan. From it, Verizon serves (or served) 4.5 million data circuits and 300,000 phone lines. In addition, a number of other telecommunications companies interconnected with Verizon's lines at the facility.

Within a week of the collapse, Verizon was able to pull together the resources, people, equipment and supplies to restore service to the New York Stock Exchange and some other customers. It is still working on restoring service to many other locations.

That Verizon was able to restore service is a legacy of decades of regulated monopoly operation. It had enough people to call upon to do the work and enough equipment and supplies (such as fiber-optic cable) stockpiled to make the work possible because the regulators supported the costs of the people and stockpiles in the rate structures Verizon has been permitted to charge. It is scary to contemplate what Verizon's readiness would be in a purely competitive environment. It costs a lot of money to be ready for disasters, money that makes it harder to compete for other companies that might not invest the same in preparedness.

There also is a network architecture factor here. The telephone network tends to be designed with relatively few big switching centers, because they are more efficient. If one of these centers is put out of commission, as 140 West St. was, large numbers of customers are affected. A more distributed network design with many more smaller switching centers would not be as efficient, but fewer customers would be affected by the failure of a switching center.

The original design of the Internet took this into account. One of the early design goals was survivability in the face of damage (see, for example, Paul Baran's work from 1964 at There has been some move toward centralization within ISPs, but the redundant design of ISP networks tends to mitigate the effect of any specific outage.

The basic question for the future, both for traditional telecommunications companies and ISPs, is one of incentives. What types of incentives are needed to ensure the network designs are outage-resistant? And that the providers maintain adequate stockpiles of equipment and supplies, and that there are enough human resources to respond to a natural outage such as a hurricane or a man-made outage? And who is going to provide the incentives in this era of deregulation?

Telecommunications networks, including the Internet, are a foundation for much of our economy and society. Doing things in the most efficient way may not be the best path for us.

Disclaimer: Harvard understands that efficiency may not always be the best path, but the above is my path.

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