Orbiting switchboard pulls plug on U.S. Millions experience failure to communicate

May 21, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Rafael Alvarez, Peter Hermann, Dail Willis, Lisa Respers, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Sarah Pekkanen and contributing writer Paula Lavigne contributed to this article.

Two days ago, most Americans were barely aware of the space technology that kept them in instant touch with their families, their banks, businesses and far-flung news correspondents.

Today, millions of people from doctors to drug dealers are coping with the disruptions of a failed communications satellite that they'd never heard of, and never knew they needed.

Blame Galaxy IV, a 9-foot- tall, $250 million telecommunications satellite 22,000 miles above the Galapagos Islands. Until 6 p.m. Tuesday it was a vital daily link for millions of pagers, bank cards, credit checks, corporate communications, television and radio broadcasters, and home satellite dishes.

At Johns Hopkins Hospital, thousands of medical staff members suddenly switched from pagers to cellular phones, two-way radios and internal intercoms, said Joann Rodgers, director of media relations. Many messages had to be delivered to doctors in person.

Baltimore police Officer Ed Bochniak, a member of the Violent Crimes Task Force, said the outage likely upset drug dealers who rely on pagers for messages from distributors.

"It's too bad we can't find out how to turn their pagers off all the time," he said.

Tony Quinton, an IBM executive who gets 20 to 30 messages a day on his pager, said the outage "reminds us that a lot of this technology is electronics. It's machines, and machines do fail."

Galaxy IV is owned and operated by PanAmSat Inc., of Greenwich, Conn. Officials there said yesterday that some corporate customers quickly found alternate satellites for their transmissions.

Others were gradually seeing service restored as their dish antennas were aimed at another PanAmSat satellite. And still others will wait for up to six days until the company can move a backup satellite into service.

"We expect that within a week of the occurrence that virtually all service will be up and in full force," said Fred Landman, PanAMSat's president and CEO.

Communications satellites are high-tech relay stations in space. They capture signals that require line-of-sight transmissions and send them over the horizon and around the planet.

Thanks to the satellites, communications services can bounce huge volumes of data across oceans and continents at the speed of light. But when they break down, and can't be fixed by remote control, they become space junk.

Such failures are rare, said Wayne A. Whyte, chief of spectrum management at NASA's Lewis research Center in Cleveland. "Satellite communications has been in existence for 30 to 40 years now and you can probably count the number of satellite failures on one hand. It's nothing to be concerned about," he said.

Tuesday's failure began when two computers inside the 5-year-old Galaxy IV satellite failed. Gyroscopes that keep Galaxy IV's antennas pointed toward the Earth could no longer do their job, and a backup system failed to switch on.

Gradually, the satellite began to spin, and all the signals coursing through it were cut off.

90% of pagers lost service

Up to 90 percent of the 40 million to 45 million U.S. pager users lost service. Radio stations lost their network feeds. TV networks lost the back channels they use to send programs to affiliates and to gather news from around the world. Some corporate communications and backyard satellite TV dishes went out.

Retail stores found they had lost the computer links they used to feed sales and inventory data to their home offices. Gas stations suddenly were unable to process customers' credit card purchases.

PanAmSat operates 17 communications satellites, but Galaxy IV is one of the most important. Its geosynchronous orbit holds it above 99 degrees west longitude -- a line that runs north through the center of the continental United States.

That makes it "visible" to dishes across the country, and ideal for serving the U.S. market.

"The paging industry has congregated on this satellite in part because of its geographic location, and the power available off this satellite," said Robert Bednarek, PanAmSat's chief technology officer. That's also why the outage got so much attention.

"It was a market we went after," he said. "Obviously, it services a huge number of customers."

PanAmSat this year notified the Federal Communications Commission of several "anomalies" in Galaxy IV that would shorten its life span. Company officials, however, saw no direct link between those problems and Tuesday's failure. "We do not at this moment have any idea why the on-board system failed, and why the redundant unit failed," Bednarek said.

Getting customers back on line will take some doing.

The company began switching many U.S. customers to Galaxy III-R, a similar satellite flying just east of Galaxy IV, but the switch won't be easy.

25,000 ground antennas

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