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Satellite outage strikes local beeper owners

May 21, 1998|By STEVEN T. DENNIS

A failure of a $250 million communications satellite disrupted pager service for millions nationwide, including many in the Hagerstown area.

The satellite lost track of Earth at about 6 p.m. Tuesday when onboard controls failed and it rotated out of position.

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.

While many local users were inconvenienced, emergency functions were largely unaffected.

Washington County Fire and Rescue Communications Chief Ron Karn said that the outage won't affect critical emergency operations because most fire and rescue officials are dispatched with radio pagers that don't use the satellite. Some agencies, including HAZMAT, do have pagers that were disabled, however, he said. Radio pagers will have to be used as a backup, he said.

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Washington County Hospital spokeswoman Beth Kirkpatrick said the pagers used there did not use the satellite and were working fine. Their service provider, All-Ways Communications, has its own tower for transmitting local pages.

Bell Atlantic Mobile customers also were unaffected in the Hagerstown area, according to spokeswoman Nancy Stark.

Others weren't so lucky.

About 90 percent of Quantum Communications Inc. customers were without service, including doctors and tow truck operators, according to Quantum secretary Bambi Vann.

Helen Hinckle, one of the owners of Hinckle's Towing in Hancock, said not having the pagers was an inconvenience but wasn't a major problem because the tow trucks have cell phones. The beepers are used when drivers are away from the truck and the phone, she said.

Ralph Tobias, program manager at WJAL-TV 68 said that they used the satellite to receive much of their programming. The station will receive its programming instead from other satellites and from mailed videotapes, he said. The schedule won't be affected and viewers shouldn't be able to tell the difference, he said.

Tobias said the station went through a similar episode last year when a communications satellite fell from the sky.

Dan DeVany, program director of WETA and WETH radio (89.1 FM in Hagerstown), said the station was able to recover from the loss of its National Public Radio satellite feed through a digital phone link to NPR.

Thousands of gasoline stations nationwide also used the satellite for its pay-at-the-pump services, which had to be suspended.

Mark Fulton, a spokesman for AC&T Co. in Hagerstown, said that all of their stations use telephone lines for their pay-at-the-pump services and were not affected.

As of Wednesday night, there was no timetable for when paging services would be restored.

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