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Satellite Outage Interrupts Pagers

May 20, 1998

Millions of pagers that keep doctors, detectives and loved ones in touch stopped working nationwide when a $250 million communications satellite suddenly lost track of Earth.

The Galaxy 4 satellite stopped relaying pager messages, as well as behind-the-scenes television feeds, at about 6 p.m. EDT Tuesday when its onboard control system and a backup switch failed and the satellite rotated out of its proper position.

Technicians were able to send commands to the craft but failed to restore its proper orientation toward Earth, said Robert Bednarek, senior vice president and chief technology officer for Greenwich, Conn.-based PanAmSat, which owns the satellite.

``We are still not transmitting,″ PanAmSat spokesman Dan Marcus said this morning. ``The situation has not changed with the Galaxy 4.″ He said his company’s was working to shift paging companies’ signals onto other satellites.

The company, which has 17 satellites worldwide, may wind up moving another satellite into the area where the Galaxy 4 is located, which would take a couple of days, he said.

Scott Baradell, a spokesman for PageNet, one of several paging companies whose services were interrupted, estimated that 80 to 90 percent of the 40 million to 45 million U.S. pager users lost service.

``This is the first time in 35 years that pagers have gone silent,″ said John D. Beletic, chairman and chief executive officer of Dallas-based PageMart Wireless Inc. ``Virtually all paging companies have been affected.″

Paging services’ voice-mail function was still operating, but pagers were not beeping or vibrating to indicate a message was received. People with pagers must call in to see if any voice-mail messages were recorded.

The only customers not affected were those whose connections are through ground-based radio transmitters, he said.

Baradell said it would take about a day for his company to switch service to another satellite for most of its 10 1/2 million customers.

``You have to make adjustments to your system,″ he said. ``If it’s at all possible to get Galaxy 4 back in service, that’s much preferred.″

The pager problem was of particular concern to doctors. Dr. Steve Dickens, a cardiologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said he was spending the night at the hospital because of the problem.

``I have to tell (the hospital) what to do and how to respond,″ he said. ``We have a good support staff, but protocol says they can’t make a decision without first calling the doctor.″

Dickens also talked to his brother, an obstetrician, about the pager problem.

``He says it’s a nightmare,″ Dickens said. ``He’s got eight ladies in labor right now. Thank God for cell phones.″

In New Hampshire, state police informed other law enforcement agencies that the paging system for officers in the major crimes unit was down.

Radio stations were having trouble receiving feeds from National Public Radio. For most of the early morning, WSCL-FM at Salisbury State University in Salisbury, Md., played its own music during times it would normally play satellite-fed programs. But by drive time, the station began receiving feeds via phone lines, said station manager Fred Marino.

``The quality isn’t the greatest, but it’s usable,″ Marino said.

Television stations also use Galaxy 4 to transmit feeds of advance shows, said Marguerite Sullivan, satellite coordinator for KCAL-TV in Los Angeles. But it was not clear what _ if any _ television programming might be affected.

``Hopefully, TV stations will be able to work around it,″ she said. ``It’s just satellite space is going to be very tight. It’s going to be a problem for syndication.″

In addition to the syndicated programs, CBS radio and television, the Chinese Television Network and the CNN Airport Network send feeds through Galaxy 4.

CBS relied most heavily on Galaxy 4 but had a backup plan switch over to the Galaxy 7 satellite. It has not been affected by the outage, said spokeswoman Amy Malone. ABC and NBC also said their operations have not been affected.

Galaxy 4 was launched in June 1993 aboard an Ariane rocket. Its coverage area is primarily the United States and Caribbean, according to PanAmSat’s World Wide Web sites.

PanAmSat is 81 percent owned by Los Angeles-based Hughes Communications Inc.

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