Error Disrupts Pager Service for Millions

From Associated Press

Millions of personal pagers across the country were rendered useless Tuesday when a computer operator inadvertently sent out a command that turned off thousands of satellite receivers.

Space Com, a Tulsa-based satellite transmission service, had to manually reprogram the receivers one by one. About 95% of service was restored by the end of the workday, and the remainder was expected to be back by this morning.

Space Com has contracts with five of the 10 largest paging companies. Its biggest contract is with Pagenet, which has more than 6 million pagers across the country. Pagenet could not estimate how many of its customers were without service.

The biggest concern was in the medical field, where doctors are on 24-hour emergency standby. Pagenet and Seattle-based McCaw Communications said they immediately contacted hospitals, law enforcement agencies and other major customers to tell them their pagers were temporarily out of service.

"Have we had problems? We've had major problems resulting from this outage," said Pagenet spokesman Gary Hartman in Bridgeport, Conn.

Paging Network of New York, which has 5 million customers nationwide, reported a 20% increase in complaints from customers on Tuesday.

Al Stem, vice president and general manager of Space Com, said its receivers were turned off between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. Tuesday when an operator giving the wrong command ordered the satellite to off-load all the addresses on the FM-squared frequency. The company's 40 technicians all worked to restore programming.

"It's a pretty bad dream," Stem said. "This hasn't ever happened before. And we're putting additional systems in place to make sure it never happens again."

Space Com's satellite system also relays information to stock quote networks, such as PC Quote in Chicago, which gives 800 customers up-to-the-minute stock quotations.

A PC Quote secretary who did not give her name said company officials could not comment because they were too busy dealing with the problem.

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