Satellite's failure leaves millions speechless in US

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The Independent Online
THEY SAY you take the conveniences of modern life for granted until they are taken away from you. Yesterday, millions of Americans found it to be true, when a satellite parked above the equator went on the blink, disabling communications from coast to coast.

By some estimates, as many as 90 per cent of all pager owners in the United States woke up yesterday to discover that their trusty gizmos had become useless.

There were other problems too: television networks could not send programmes to affiliates, weather forecasters found themselves bereft of radar data and even some petrol stations improvised as credit card readers in automatic pumps failed to function.

It all began late on Tuesday, when the Galaxy 4 satellite, owned by PanAmSat of Connecticut, suffered a general systems breakdown that made it suddenly tilt away from Earth. Information that it was meant to be relaying back to Earth instead started being reflected into space.

The pager industry bore the brunt of the breakdown, with about 45 million customers affected. And while pagers, or beepers, may be little more than fashion accessories for some, for many others, such as doctors and emergency workers, they have become a vital tool.

"This is the first time in 35 years that pagers have gone silent," lamented John Beletic, chairman of one of the affected pager companies, PageMart Wireless Inc. He and others in the industry had to decide whether to switch services to other satellites, which would take at least a day, or wait until Galaxy 4 was fixed. And at PanAmSat's headquarters, in Greenwich, a repairs timetable seemed unsure.

Launched by Europe's Ariane space programme in June 1993, Galaxy 4 is positioned to provide communications coverage to most of the United States and the Caribbean.

By late morning, PanAmSat was reporting that some pager services were being restored through alternative satellites with spare capacity. "We are starting to migrate the traffic from Galaxy 4 to another satellite," said Dan Marcus, a spokesman for the company.

Hospitals, meanwhile, were filled with the racket of doctors being summoned in the old-fashioned way, via public address systems. Among the millions of medical workers inconvenienced was Dr Steve Dickens, a cardiologist at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. He had to spend the night at the hospital to avoid being out of reach. "I have to tell people what to do and how to respond," he said.

At the New York University Medical Center, Dr Stuart Lewis said he did not realise his beeper was inactive until somebody from work telephoned him early yesterday to warn him. "It's shocking, frankly. I feel like I'm untethered. I think I am going to be running up the bill on my cellphone today."

Hardest hit in the television industry was CBS, which found itself struggling to feed programmes to affiliates around the country in time for their broadcast. The company eventually found space on an alternative satellite. CNN was forced to close down its Airport Network yesterday because of the problems.