PBS relocates satellite feeds
after Telstar 401 goes black

Technicians at public TV stations across the country spent their weekend bringing back the PBS feed that was lost early on Saturday, Jan. 11, [1997,] when AT&T's Telstar 401 suddenly ceased functioning.

The three-year-old satellite blacked out at 6:15 a.m., Eastern time, but AT&T had moved the main PBS channels to a designated backup transponder on Telstar 402R by the time Saturday morning feeds began at 8 a.m., according to Gwen Wood, PBS director of satellite services.

By noon Sunday, AT&T opened up a C-band transponder on the same satellite to carry the PBS "Schedule X" feed to backyard-dish owners.

By late last week, AT&T and PBS had found ways to accommodate 75 percent of its satellite traffic, according to Bob Ottenhoff, executive v.p. A major telecourse network for engineering colleges, the National Technological University, was completely displaced, he said. Regional networks had to reschedule some feeds.

On the ground, station personnel braved snow and icestorms to redirect receiving dishes toward the east and slightly higher in the sky to pick up transmissions from 402R.

Program distributors also had to make new arrangements for uplinking. Moving most feeds to the temporary transponder with half the bandwidth of its usual transponder, PBS had to double the rate of digital compression and switch to MCPC transmission--requiring that all feeds originate from one uplink, Wood told Current. Syndicators scrambled to find ways to transmit their programs to PBS's Virginia uplink site.

Now six channels of digital public TV feeds are carried by half of a 54 MHz transponder and the PBS Adult Learning Service telecourses are carried, in analog, on the other half.

Louisiana ETV, which used a Telstar 401 transponder to interconnect its six transmitters, switched to two other temporary satellites before AT&T gave it a spot on Telstar 402R, Jan. 14, said Engineering Director Kent Hatfield. Technicians crisscrossed the state, repointing dishes repeatedly.

PBS, which had paid extra to AT&T for a "platinum" guarantee, was accommodated within a few hours; Louisiana ETV, which had a "silver" deal, waited a few days.

Inevitably there were problems in making the emergency switch to a different satellite. Freak icestorms hit Louisiana and Texas. In Watertown, N.Y., where it was more routine to get two feet of snow in a day, WNPE found that its main dish couldn't be turned far enough to pick up Telstar 402A, so the station relied on a much smaller 10-foot dish while a local welding shop built a new bracket for the big dish, said Cal Schantz, chief engineer.

Late last week AT&T declared Telstar 401 "permanently out of service," and said it is working with Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer, to figure out what killed it off. For the interim, the company said it will ask the FCC for permission to put displaced program feeds on Telstar 302, using the orbital slot of the dead satellite. In the longer term, AT&T plans to keep public TV feeds on Telstar 402R while moving commercial TV feeds to Telstar 5, scheduled to be launched in May.

Loral Space & Communications, the defense contractor that agreed to buy AT&T's satellite operations last fall, endorsed AT&T's plans.



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Later story: Sixteen months after PBS's outage, NPR's satellite goes haywire and interrupts public radio feeds.


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