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Outage hits pagers, Net access

A satellite glitch disrupts pager service throughout the United States, affecting tens of millions of customers.

Service is slowly being restored to tens of millions of pager customers throughout the United States, following a massive satellite glitch that disrupted service throughout the nation.

Internet access via satellite was severed as well. Television audio feeds and wire service news transmissions also were affected.

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An estimated 80 percent to 90 percent of all U.S. pagers were affected by the disruption, according to a spokesman for PageNet, one of nation's the largest pager companies. The glitch occurred when the Galaxy IV satellite, operated by PanAmSat, spun out of control Tuesday night.

About 40 million people use pagers in the United States, the PageNet spokesman said.

As of Thursday, May 21 at 6:30 a.m. CDT, 85 percent of PageNet customers were back in service. "We now have significant geographical coverage in all of our metropolitan service areas nationwide," the company said in announcing the restoration of service. "Even though the majority of our customers are back in service, they may experience geographical pockets that are not in service. Transmission sites in outlying areas are being brought up today and tomorrow."

"This type of disruption in satellite service is extremely rare," Federal Communications Commission Chairman William Kennard said in a statement today. "We are working with PanAmSat to facilitate implementation of its backup system to restore full service to its customers."

Kennard added that an FCC advisory group, the National Reliability and Interoperability Council, would be asked for recommendations to prevent future outages of this scale.

Many paging customers were surprised to learn that the paging industry was so dependent on a single satellite, especially in light of the failure of AT&T's giant frame relay network, which disrupted service for thousands of businesses for a full day less than a month ago.

Although PageNet has a backup satellite, transferring service to it takes time, the company noted. The transition requires adjustments to the paging network on a city-by-city basis.

PanAmSat spokesman Dan Marcus said the company has ten satellites in orbit covering the United States, including one spare that could be moved into position to pick up for Galaxy IV.

And while paging service has for the most part been restored, the satellite company is still experiencing difficulties with Galaxy IV, Robert Bednarek, PanAmSat's chief technology officer, said in a statement.

"PanAmSat continues to experience difficulties in the control of the Galaxy IV spacecraft," he said. "The on-board attitude control systems have not been restored, and spacecraft engineers continue to examine possible solutions."

Hughes Network Systems Direct PC customers, who get Net access via the satellite, lost signal Tuesday night as well. "Users will continue to experience temporary interruption in service for an unspecified period," a recorded message said yesterday.

Direct PC service now is up and running for all users, and the company announced today that it "will be issuing service credits to compensate affected subscribers for the inconvenience of this event."

CBS's radio and television feeds, the Chinese Television Network, and CNN's Airport Network all send feeds through the satellite, according to several news reports. In addition, some stories sent electronically by Reuters news service were not received by some news organizations.

Some stations with access to high-speed land connections were saved by the Net, where they could pick up some shows on RealAudio, such as National Public Radio's All Things Considered.

Tuesday night, PageNet said on its tape-recorded message: "We are aware of the issue with the Galaxy IV communications satellite....This is affecting all communications that use this uplink throughout the country."

A recorded message from AirTouch, another paging service provider, said: "The satellite vendor used by the paging industry nationwide is experiencing technical difficulties. This has affected paging systems nationwide and pages are not being transmitted."

The problem originated with the failure of computer processors within the primary system that points the spacecraft's antennas toward Earth.

"The automatic switch to a backup unit failed as well," PanAmSat's Bednarek said in a statement.

According to the PanAmSat Web site, Galaxy IV was launched in 1993 and became "a premier satellite for the distribution of broadcast television network and syndicated programming in the United States."

A replacement could theoretically be ready for launch in late 1999, said spokesman Marcus, who however cautioned that was a rough estimate.

Hughes Electronics owns an 81 percent stake in PanAmSat, according to a May 1 press release issued by PanAmSat.

Dawn Kawamoto contributed to this report.