- When close to 90 percent of all U.S.
pagers stopped beeping and vibrating yesterday, consumers from teens to
doctors may have wondered for the first time how the little box they so
depend upon actually works and what made it suddenly stop.
- Because of a computer failure, PanAmSat's
Galaxy 4 satellite lost its way last night, sparking a nationwide crisis
management frenzy to redirect paging services to backup satellites. Wireless
Internet access, some television audio feeds, and news service transmissions
also were disrupted.
- Some users expressed surprise that the
paging industry was so dependent on a single satellite. But satellite
communication experts said today that there are a few simple explanations
for why only one of PanAmSat's 17 global satellites was servicing almost
all of the country's 40 million to 45 million pagers.
- For starters, since 1993, Galaxy 4 has
been stationed in prime space "real estate." At 99 degrees west
longitude, Galaxy 4 is able to cover the entire lower 48 states with almost
no interference from mountains, buildings, or even the horizon.
- "That position has been popular
since the late 1970s. It is a primo orbital position that is kind of right
dead-center in the country," said Mark McKibben, head of the Society
of Satellite Professionals' Southern California chapter and president of
- "Over the years, as wireless networks
grew, the replacement satellites that went into the 99 slot 'grandfathered'
the services that were already going there," he added. "It's
easier to consolidate traffic on one satellite than to repoint thousands
- Also, Galaxy 4 was able to link up so
many pagers because satellites can generally handle massive capacities,
and the signals take up relatively little bandwidth compared to such transmissions
- The company's marketing didn't hurt either.
PanAmSat pitched Galaxy 4 as the ultimate satellite for paging services.
- "That was how the satellite was
marketed -- as a telecommunication satellite," said Marc Kuykendall
corporate communications director for SkyTel. "One reason we were
able to respond quickly with most of our customers is that we didn't have
100 percent of our traffic on Galaxy 4."
- Although SkyTel's 1 million traditional
pager customers were only momentarily affected by the outage, about 300,000
two-way pager clients were out for some time, Kuykendall said. The bulk
of its service was immediately redirected, but SkyTel did not have a backup
system fully in place for its range of next-generation, two-way paging
services, which allow people to respond to messages using the pager instead
of a telephone. For example, some of the handheld devices contain a menu
of responses, while others are more interactive -- letting users devise
customized messages with a tiny keyboard.
- PanAmSat couldn't be immediately reached
for comment regarding why Galaxy 4 carried a majority of the country's
pager load. Chief technology officer Robert Bednarek told ABCNews.com
that the paging service was a small percentage of the total bandwidth on
the satellite, and that: "It was in a great position relative to the
earth, and paging was a market we went after."
- Considering the industry has never faced
an outage of this scale, Kuykendall said, its response has been excellent.
Companies had to send technicians out all over the country to redirect
antennas. And by noon today, most of PamAmSat's service was transferred
to another satellite. In about six days, the company said a satellite
located at 74 degrees west longitude would be moved to Galaxy 4's old spot.
- Still, as of late today, only 40 percent
of PageNet's 10.4 million pagers in the United States and Canada had their
service restored, although the company expects most of the service to be
reinstated by tomorrow morning. Service in less populated areas may not
be restored until Friday.
- "The industry has been working together
to find replacement satellites and even going out and repointing each other's
satellites," Kuykendall noted. "I think it will be safe to say
that everybody takes this as a learning experience."
- One lesson the industry learned is that
more backup is need, experts said. The television industry, for example,
is known to spread out its wireless connections and have alternate positions
on deck if a satellite is knocked out.
- "Today it happened to affect paging
services, but if it was a different satellite it could have had an effect
on cable TV and a whole host of different services we've come to rely on
every day," said Paul Judge, director of management consulting for
the Walter Group, a Seattle-based firm specializing in emerging communications
- "The industry recognizes that these
are critical communications and generally build in the ability to back
up systems when they go down," he added.
- For example, he said companies could
buy antennas that focus on more than one satellite or those that can mechanically
move when losing a satellite. Also, wireless services can make sure to
have alternate satellites always waiting in the wings.
- In the end, however, some disasters can't
be avoided, said McKibben of the Society of Satellite Professionals.
- "There have been a lot of satellites
lost over time," he said. "There is no way to avoid a loss of
a satellite -- it's what they call an 'act of God.'"