While widespread closings kept workers off the roads yesterday, many ran smack into a different kind of traffic jam--the one on the Internet.
With workers firing up home computers and fax machines, children Web surfing, and others using the day at home to make long calls, telecommunications systems throughout the region slowed down or didn't function at all.
Bell Atlantic reported heavy congestion yesterday as people used phone lines while they tried to work at home rather than risk a treacherous drive to the office.
"We do have moderate to heavy network congestion in Washington caused by the number of people using the home systems today, including voice and data communications," said company spokesman Michel Daley. "And because people are at home, they are inside calling family and friends."
The number of telephone calls yesterday probably was no higher than on a normal business day, Daley said. But the duration of the calls was longer, causing unusual congestion. Bell Atlantic officials won't know exactly how much usage grew until they calculate the numbers today.
Tom Butts, managing editor of digitalbroadcasting.com, usually telecommutes from his home in Manassas. For him, yesterday was just another day at work. "This is one of those rare days where the office workers get their revenge on us telecommuters," he said. "I have no excuse so I have to work today. As for the commuters, today, you win."
Butts did say he had problems getting Internet access, adding that his Internet service provider, Concentric, is "not working well at all. But I can't blame it on them."
And he can't get much help, because his employer's tech support crew wasn't in yesterday. "I'm able to get work done, but if I need to get in touch with someone on the East Coast, forget it," Butts said. "It's been a slow day, but it does give me a chance to get caught up."
Nick D'Apice, chief technology officer for Timebridge Technologies Inc. in Lanham, worked out of his home yesterday, as did 145 other Timebridge employees.
On a normal day, 35 percent of the network management company's 225 employees plug in from their homes, which the company pays to have wired with extra phone lines or high-speed digital subscriber lines or cable modems to ensure a smooth and fast connection, D'Apice said. Employees were not encountering Internet traffic problems yesterday, he said.
Other workers at home yesterday reported that DSL service was a lifesaver, while others were trying to log on to their ISPs. Paul Witzkoske recently signed up for Bell Atlantic's Infospeed DSL service at his condominium.
"I was able to check my work e-mail through the Web, download attached files, and edit and publish Web files from my Macintosh at home even though we use PCs at work," said Witzkoske, a Web developer for a major nonprofit trade association who usually does not telecommute. "Telecommuting is great."
Bell Atlantic spokesman Daley agreed that better technology at home helps on days like yesterday--to a point. "In the old days, it was not uncommon for a family to have one telephone in their home. Now they have three or four lines. It's putting a strain on the system because many of these lines are in use simultaneously," he said.
Many people ran into the effects of that strain.
"I got a lot of 'circuits are busy' messages and that was probably for quite a large part of the day," said Marie Goldenberg, a computer systems consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers. She also said she had some trouble getting through to her Internet service provider from around noon until later in the afternoon.
When phoning Starpower's tech support line yesterday, callers were told that the ISP's call center was operating at reduced staffing because of the storm and the estimated wait for help was 30 minutes long.
This situation, according to Daley, "is not unique." He said it is reminiscent of holidays such as Mother's Day or New Year's Eve, when the number of long-distance calls increases.
Kurt Rahn, spokesman for EarthLink, an ISP based in Pasadena, Calif., said the number of connections made yesterday from the East Coast was higher than usual. "But I don't think we've seen a slowdown" in service, he added.
Rahn said the increase in the number of telecommuters has forced the company to "scale up" service, making it a little easier to handle a punch like the one from yesterday's snowstorm. "We've seen a lot more people getting on from home."
Charles Glover, who does consulting work for the Department of Energy's Oakridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, said the worst part about telecommuting yesterday was trying to concentrate with the wind blowing at the windows of his town house in Fairfax.
"I've been on the Internet since 5:30 this morning. Some things are a little slower than I'm used to," Glover said. But, he said, it's been nice having a day away from phones, meetings and other office disruptions. "At least I took a break and went outside with my 5-year-old daughter for a while."
Staff writer Yuki Noguchi contributed to this report.