Wednesday, May 20, 1998

Glitch silences
millions of pagers

A key communications satellite
loses track of Earth and pivots
out of position

Star-Bulletin staff and wire


Millions of pagers, including many in Hawaii, sat silent today and some radio and TV relays were interrupted because a $250 million communications satellite lost track of Earth.

Technicians were to move some paging services to other satellites today, and considered moving another satellite into position in orbit.

The Galaxy 4 satellite stopped relaying pager messages and media feeds at about 6 p.m. EDT yesterday when its onboard control system and a backup switch failed and the satellite rotated out of position.

In Hawaii, besides GTE Hawaiian Tel's paging service, Hawaii Public Radio's mainland programs were cut off yesterday. Today's broadcast of "Morning Edition" from National Public Radio had to be recorded from a telephone line. Other programs were being sent out by tape.

GTE/Hawaiian Tel said nine pager prefixes were affected, five on Oahu, one on Maui, two on the Big Island and one on Kauai. Paging service in Hawaii was cut off shortly after noon yesterday in Hawaii.

Brian Blevins, GTE Hawaiian Tel director of public affairs, said service for Oahu customers should be restored later today as technicians work to shift island paging service to another satellite. Neighbor island service should be operational by tomorrow.

Blevins said it was hard to determine how many GTE Hawaiian Tel pagers were affected by the satellite problem. Customers trying to send a page to a GTE Hawaiian Tel customer got a recorded message saying service was suspended because of satellite difficulty.

In April Hawaiian Tel customers lost pager service for 12 hours when an At&T system went down.

Pager prefixes hit in blackout

GTE Hawaiian Tel said nine pager prefixes in Hawaii were affected by the satellite problems. They were:

Bullet Oahu: Prefixes 251, 252, 273, 290 and 272

Bullet Maui: 278

Bullet Big Island: 898 and 899

Bullet Kauai: 644

Mark Wagner, Hawaii Public Radio interim co-manager, said the station may have to switch to a different satellite if service is not restored quickly.

Technicians were able to send commands to the satellite but could not restore its 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.

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.

Some paging service was restored by 8 a.m. EDT by switching to a different satellite, Marcus said. There was no indication when all paging and media feeds would be restored.

At Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, pagers returned to working order at midmorning today. The problem had posed a minor inconvenience overnight, but patient care "has not been compromised in any way," said spokeswoman Joann Rodgers.

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 percent 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."

PageMart announced on its Internet Web page early today that service had been moved to backup satellites for customers in major cities including Boston, Minneapolis, Cleveland and Philadelphia, and it was working to move service for other customers.

Baradell said it would take about a day for his company to finish switching service for most of its 10-1/2 million customers. The only customers not affected were those whose connections are through ground-based radio transmitters, he said.

The pager problem was of particular concern to doctors. Dr. Steve Dickens, a cardiologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said he spent 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."

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