Employees surrender pagers in satellite failure

by Jennifer Niemela

A communication satellite careening off course showed that society’s dependence on modern technology has reached cosmic proportions.
Thousands of pagers across the University campus were silent Wednesday after the Galaxy IV satellite, which services an estimated 80 percent of the pagers in the United States, stopped relaying pager messages and media feeds Tuesday evening.
The failure of the $250 million satellite rendered useless everything from the music callers hear when put on hold at most University offices to pagers University employees wear.
PanAmSat, the Greenwich, Conn.-based company that owns Galaxy IV, started switching services to other satellites Wednesday, but service to some pagers won’t be restored until the orbit of another satellite, Galaxy VI, can be moved to take over operations. Robert Bednarek, senior vice president and chief technology officer of PanAmSat, said that could take until Sunday or Monday.
The satellite malfunction also affected some radio and television frequencies. However, local pagers that use ground-based radio transmissions survived the malfunctioning because they don’t use the satellite.
Meanwhile, offices around the University discovered different modes of communication — and realized how dependent they are on paging devices.
The lack of paging capability forced some employees at the Office of Information Technology Networking & Telecommunications Services, which services telephones and other communications devices around the University, to call in to work every half-hour to get assignments.
They also rushed Wednesday morning to find a recording to replace the music people hear when are put on hold by most University offices. Galaxy IV transmits the channel the service uses.
Operations manager Louis Hammond said the ordeal made him realize the office should diversify its communication modes rather than rely so heavily on pagers.
“If you depend solely on a pager, you’ll get burned,” Hammond said. “It doesn’t make or break you, but it makes you awfully vulnerable.”
It surprised some pager customers to realize how dependent they had become on pagers. In Facilities Management Zone 6, which services the Institute of Technology, the service interruption didn’t hinder the work schedule because managers assign jobs the night before they’re done.
However, shift supervisor John Mollner said the sudden service interruption shocked him.
“I assumed the company would be able to switch us right away if something happened to the frequency,” he said, adding that some facilities management employees resorted to such archaic methods of communication as walkie-talkies Wednesday.
Mollner said although he wouldn’t switch from statewide to regional pagers at this point, in the future he would “stick closer to local pagers,” which use ground-based transmission.
Meanwhile, pager companies around the Twin Cities were busy Wednesday fielding calls from angry customers who hadn’t heard the reason for the interrupted service.
Neal Fenton, who owns Pagers R Us, a St. Louis, Minn.-based pager supply company, said he received calls from customers saying they’d paid their bills and asking about the service interruption.
“It’s like the end of the world to them,” Fenton said. “I just tell them to read the paper and wait, it’s an asteroid coming to earth.”