Rogue satellite may disrupt rural Web, phone service

Kyle Hopkins

As many as 35,000 people in rural Alaska may lose Internet access, long-distance phone service or both for hours at a time this week because of a "zombie" satellite that has wandered off course and is expected to scramble the signals of the Bush's main telecommunications provider.

"Almost every single person out in rural Alaska uses one of those services somehow," said David Morris, spokesman for General Communication Inc.

GCI is airing radio ads, posting fliers and plans to send text messages to cell phone customers warning residents in roughly 100 communities -- mainly in Western and Northern Alaska -- of the potential outages.

The disruptions to GCI service are expected to begin Wednesday morning and continue until Saturday morning in blocks of time that will last 90 minutes to 5 1/2 hours, mostly in the morning and at night.

Picture the YouTube droughts. The silent cell phones and unanswered e-mails. Virtual "FarmVille" gardens withering and neglected on Facebook.

For Gordon Brower Jr., the 19-year-old son of a whaling captain, the outages mean exile from the online battlefields of what he calls Barrow's favorite Xbox game -- "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2."

Brower said he spends endless hours playing the online shooter with other gamers above the Arctic Circle as the snowmachine he's been trying to sell on Craigslist sits in the yard outside. He's thinking an Internet break might not be such a bad thing.

"It makes me a couch potato anyways," Brower said.

The tale of the zombie satellite, mindless but moving, began April 5 when a roughly 4,000-pound and 46-foot-wide communications satellite called Galaxy 15 malfunctioned 22,300 miles above the Earth. It's still powered up, but no one can steer it as it meanders near other satellites.

"It's gone rogue," said John Concilus, director of educational technology for the Bering Strait School District, and a self-described satellite and rocketry geek.

News reports blamed the failure on a solar storm, but a spokeswoman for Intelsat, the Luxembourg-based company that operates the satellite, says no conclusive cause has been determined.

"We understand that there are sacrifices involved here and that we are working hard with our direct customer, GCI, to minimize the impact to the citizens in Alaska," said Dianne VanBeber, an Intelsat vice president.

The satellite's path is taking it in wide, north-south arcs as it approaches a different satellite GCI uses to provide phone and Internet service to much of rural Alaska. When it gets too close to the "good" satellite, the rogue satellite is expected to disrupt the GCI signal.

Most of the villages either don't have local 911 service or the service won't be affected by the outages, Morris said. In five, however -- Ambler, Deering, Gambell, Kiana and Shungnak -- GCI doesn't know if the interruption will cause 911 calls to fail.

The company estimates 4,000 residential customers, about 1,000 businesses, 78 village clinics and 49 schools could lose Internet access.

That means ATMs won't work. Grocery store clerks won't be able to electronically process credit cards.

For the Bering Strait School District, the timing couldn't be worse, Concilus said. The four days of expected outage come as about 160 school employees converge on the Norton Sound village of Unalakleet for training that demands Internet access.

The district rescheduled some of the training to avoid the outage windows, while GCI set up a temporary dish in the village that will provide some Internet connectivity during the week, he said.

While it's easy to picture the teeth-clenching outrage that would follow a 5-hour Internet blackout in Anchorage, the communities that GCI says could be hit by outages include towns connected by rivers and airplanes rather than roads, villages closer to walruses than Wal-Marts.

As a result, many rural residents say they're used to all manner of such breakdowns, interruptions and inconveniences in everyday life.

"When you live where we live and play where we play, you have to be prepared for that kind of thing to happen," said Bill Pearch, spokesman for the Bristol Bay Area Health Corp.

GCI has arranged for regional hospitals like the health corporation's Kanakanak Hospital in Dillingham to remain connected to the Internet during the outages, allowing telemedicine services to continue, Morris said. Nearly 80 village clinics, however, are expected to lose Internet access.

In the Bristol Bay region, village health aides who lose long-distance phone service and Internet access should be able to dial hospitals on a satellite phone to retrieve crucial information, like whether a patient is allergic to certain medicine, Pearch said.

It helps that the Internet outages are expected mainly before the clinics open or after they close, he said. "It's gone from what could have been a catastrophe to something that's just an inconvenience."

Ruth Barr works at the Deering village clinic and like many rural residents seemed to shrug at the notion of a few hours offline each day. This time of year many people are outside -- looking for caribou and fishing, picking berries and bagging musk ox, she said.

"There's quite a bit to do besides Internet, I guess."

Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at Twitter updates: Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.

Details on the expected Internet disruption GCI warns that because of an off-course satellite rural long-distance phone and Internet customers in the northern, northwestern, western and southwestern regions of the state may experience limited service or no service beginning Wednesday morning.

Customers on the road system, in urban centers like Anchorage and Fairbanks, and in most of Southeast Alaska shouldn't be affected.

Bethel and surrounding Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villages will also avoid the outages because GCI recently switched their services to a different satellite, a company spokesman said. Callers in Barrow, Kotzebue, Nome and the greater Bethel region will be able to make long-distance calls normally, according to GCI.

But village residents may have to dial a toll free number (1-888-991-8199) in order to call people outside their hometowns, the phone company says. Cell phones will be able to handle local calls but not long-distance.

Cable TV won't be affected anywhere, according to GCI, but the Internet outages could be widespread, including rural hub cities and remote villages.

The anticipated outage times, according to GCI:

Wednesday: 7 to 8:30 a.m.; 6 to 10 p.m.

Thursday: 6 to 10:30 a.m.; 5 to 10:30 p.m.

Friday: 5 to 10 a.m.; 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.

Saturday: 5 to 9:30 a.m.

website: Full list of communities affected
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