Operators' Tasks: Communications, News

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Momentarily stunned like the rest of the country, cable operators soon shook off some of the shock of the events of Sept. 11 and got to work providing communications links vital to aid the United States in coping with and recovering from the terrorist attack.

Workers in New York walked for miles from their own homes to ensure that Manhattan's cable systems — viewers' only television link once broadcast towers on the World Trade Center were destroyed — would remain reliable.

Regional news operations NY1 and News 12 Long Island, affiliated with Time Warner Cable and Cablevision Systems Corp. respectively, racked up hour after hour of coverage, vital work that will nevertheless cost the operations thousands of dollars in overtime and lost ad revenue.

At ground zero, Time Warner Cable in New York City rushed Wednesday to meet a request to wire 1 Police Plaza with high-speed data connections.

New York City law enforcement lost its telephone and data lines in the World Trade Center tragedy, and put out the call for Road Runner high-speed data connections.

"Our immediate concern is to keep the network operating as well as it has been," said company spokesman Michael Luftman. That will be an on-going challenge because of the ash and debris on the end of the island.

By Sept. 13, ash continually sucked into air filters caused one of the MSO's hub sites to begin to overheat.

The company requested and received a special police escort into the disaster area and workers risked their own safety to service the vents and maintain service continuity.

Efforts also included acts that, on a smaller scale, are also helping the healing process.

A customer service worker in an Adelphia Communications Corp. customer service center helped a desperate telephone customer at Logan Airport loved ones.

Charter Communications Inc. advised employees to curtail telemarketing to avoid intrusion into customer's homes, while focusing on network reliability.

POWER CHALLENGES

Apparently, no Time Warner Cable employees were hurt in the terrorist attack. But the company is working on providing counseling for employees who may have lost family and friends. Time Warner Cable had an unmanned Road Runner facility in the towers, but its loss has not impacted operations.

The system suffered outages only in the immediate area of the World Trade Center, mainly due to power outages. Most New York broadcast programming is fed to the cable company by fiber optic link, not by the transmission towers that were on the twin towers. But the system did lose feeds from WOR and WNJU for a short time, Luftman said.

The destruction of the antennas — used by all local broadcasters except WCBS, which broadcasts from the Empire State Building — along with the towers left New York area viewers dependent on cable for information.

TBS dropped its entertainment programming soon after the disaster, replacing it with CNN. On the Time Warner system, TBS is on broadcast basic, so all cable viewers had that news source in addition to NY1 and broadcast stations.

Luftman called the reporters at NY1 "most valiant," working non-stop. The regional news network worked with sister company HBO to link the news coverage to other cable systems.

NY1 and Cablevision's News 12 Long Island were fully staffed, and extra equipment was on hand, since New York's primary elections were supposed to be held on the day of the attack.

Executives at both operations have not stopped long enough to compute the cost of the coverage and the loss of ad revenue due to continuous coverage.

"We have money set aside each year" for disaster coverage, said Norm Fein, senior vice president of news development for News 12. "This could have been a three-day hurricane. We'll probably make good on advertising."

News 12 covered the disaster and its aftermath, crafting coverage in each of its borough channels to meet the needs of the local audience. In the five news operations, News 12 had 60 reporters and 50 photographers going full tilt. Even permanent traffic cameras in the disaster zone were used to generate news footage.

The focus of the channels, which normally carry traffic and weather, was shifted: there were three reports on roads open and closed to New York City for every one weather report. Normally, those topics alternate.

"We have an extraordinary and dedicated group. Most went 36 hours straight, then got two hours sleep, then got right back at it," Fein said.

HELPING TO HEAL

The attack, and the subsequent disaster, left businesses with executives stranded all over the country. Cable companies, including AT&T Broadband, Cox Communications Inc., Charter, Time Warner Cable and Comcast Corp. said they have accounted for their workers and all are safe. Once that was determined, operators began advising workers to seek trauma counseling if they needed it, and to redouble efforts to serve their consumers.

Dave Barford, Charter's chief operating officer and executive vice president, e-mailed employees, instructing them to "avoid any unnecessary unsolicited contact with customers that would seem inappropriate" following the disaster.

He also thanked his workers for their hard work during a difficult time.

CEO Jerald Kent also offered use of corporate jets, pending resumption of private use of the airspace, to employees stranded on business trips to Charter. Kent was one of the stranded; he was in Los Angeles when the terrorists struck.

Those closer to home also needed a little help Tuesday. Michael Willner, president of Manhattan-based Insight Communications Co., and his daughter could not get out of the city. The California Cable Television Association gave him one of the rooms at the New York Hilton the association had booked for members attending Diversity Week functions, according to CCTA spokesman Paul Fadelli.

The beyond-the-call-of-duty action taken by an Adelphia customer service representative provides a sterling example of the flexibility, compassion and patience that may be necessary by businesses in the coming days.

An Adelphia telephone customer called shortly after the disaster from a pay phone at Logan Airport in Boston. The woman was trying to call relatives in Florida to advise them she was safe but could not get through. In desperation, she called the toll-free customer care number on her Adelphia pre-paid calling card and begged the worker in the call center to help her. The worker was able to connect the call for the frantic woman and facilitate a telephone reunion with the panicked family, according to Bill Pekarski, communications assistant at Adelphia.

Most companies said it was too soon to detail charitable actions they may take to promote recovery, but plans are in the works. Virtually all were urging workers to find time to give blood, to curtail unnecessary long distance calls and to take time with family.

"I have no doubt Time Warner will step up for the city of New York," said Luftman.

Karen Brown contributed to this report.

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