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James P. Cramer, Hon AIA, Hon IIDA
Chairman & CEO
The Greenway Group
Norcross, GA

Legends of the Fall: Technology in Action

February 1, 2002
by Kerry Harding

A mere two weeks after the attack on the World Trade Center, the voice/data communications of Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton, a large New York City law firm that before September 11 had occupied seven floors of a building directly across the street from Ground Zero, were fully up and running, thanks to an ingenious laser-based network designed and implemented by Cosentini Information Technologies.

Cleary’s offices at One Liberty Plaza were rendered temporarily uninhabitable by the tragedy, forcing the firm to scramble for alternative space for nearly a thousand employees, including 350 attorneys. By Monday, September 17, space had been found in as many as seven different buildings scattered throughout midtown Manhattan. An emergency command center in the Citicorp Building that Cleary had established in the wake of the WTC bombing in 1993 was also brought into action.

A major operational hurdle still faced the firm, however: how to quickly create a telephone and computer network system linking the disparate sites. The problem was made all the more difficult because the local telephone provider, Verizon, was overwhelmed by the need to contain and repair damage in lower Manhattan and to provide communications systems for government agencies and other organizations assisting in the recovery effort. If it wanted Verizon’s help, Cleary would have to wait.

Within days of September 11th, Cleary approached Cosentini Information Technologies for help in solving the problem. Cosentini’s engineers-including Director of Information Technologies Charles Buscarino, Jr., Network Systems Engineer Douglas Smith, and Telecommunications Engineer Onorius Vaidean-were charged with the monumental task of evaluating communications capabilities at all the sites, finding a way to connect them, designing the system, and coordinating the enormous procurement and installation effort, which involved numerous vendors, integrators and contractors.

The job began on Tuesday, September 18, with the goal of completing work by the following Monday, so that Cleary could occupy its new offices on Tuesday the 25th-a task rendered even more complicated by the fact that some of the sites originally identified were rejected as infeasible while other, newly identified sites were surveyed and approved over the course of the week.

Because the crisis made use of the city’s existing communications infrastructure impossible, Cosentini’s engineers immediately decided to “take to the skies,” ascertaining that a series of infrared lasers-whose beams could be made to carry voice and data transmissions from one building to the next-would accomplish the goal. Though the technology is not new, Cosentini’s solution represents what may be the first use of lasers to achieve a redundant, non-terrestrial, multi-site network that merges voice and data on the same connection.

The technical challenges raised by the project were substantial. To take just one example: although the laser’s 155-megabit bandwidth is, under ideal conditions, more than is needed to carry all of Cleary’s voice and data communications between sites, the system can go down if a beam is interrupted, and the signal can be degraded when the beam is shot through high-quality, energy-efficient glass like that used in some of the Manhattan skyscrapers into which the firm had relocated. It rapidly became clear that a supplementary/backup system would also be required.

In the system that Cosentini ultimately devised for Cleary, that backup is provided by radio frequency (RF) transceivers that are instantly activated whenever one of the routers connecting the laser signal to an office’s fiber optic infrastructure detects a laser failure. Although the backup system, which supplements each laser with three RF transceivers capable of conveying a total of 33 megabits of information, is not used for voice transmission, it makes certain that Cleary has continuous data connectivity throughout the network linking the many sites.

After a seven-day Herculean effort, Cleary was able to move into all of its temporary offices the next Tuesday, as planned while its permanent offices in One Liberty Plaza were being constructed. Until that was completed, the Cosentini-designed laser and RF system was just one of many examples where technology-savvy firms used innovation to rescue desperate clients.