Alaska News

Sun-swamped satellite communications a particularly Alaska problem

Radio on the fritz? Internet failing to connect? TV picture looking distorted? Phone calls being dropped?

You're not imagining things, nor are you alone, as Alaska is currently experiencing the effects of solar activity.

The twice-yearly phenomenon interrupts the reception of satellite signals, causing all manner of technological hiccups, though no lasting damage.

It's not an issue of solar flares or anything special happening on the sun. It's simply a matter of orbital placement having to do with geostationary satellites, those that hover about 22,000 miles in a fixed location exactly above the equator.

For a couple-week stretch around the spring and fall equinoxes -- specifically, late February to early March and late September to early October -- Earth's orbit is such that the band of geostationary satellites passes right in front of the sun, fuzzing out the stations trying to tune in those satellite signals on the ground.

"It occurs because you have a satellite that is somewhere in your communication link and the sun gets directly behind that satellite and competes with the antenna that's on the ground for RF -- or radio frequency. So what that means is that the sun's energy just overpowers the signal that's going between the Earth station and the satellite, and so it affects all types of communication. If it goes over satellite, it will affect it; it doesn't matter whether that's cable TV or long-distance phone calls or whatever, it will affect it," said David Morris, GCI spokesman.

The sun swamps the signal from the satellite, as Andy Veh, astronomy professor at Kenai Peninsula College, puts it.


"We all know that we obviously get light and heat from the sun, but we get all the other radiation as well. That includes some X-rays and gamma rays, but thankfully not a lot, and some ultraviolet radiation, but thankfully not a lot. On the other side of the spectrum, we get microwave and radio waves as well. Radio astronomers, they wouldn't point their radio telescope toward the sun, they just would get all the radio from the sun, just like optical astronomers would point their telescope at the sun if they want to look at the stars, because all they'd see is the sun," Veh said.

This alignment problem lasts about two weeks and can cause periodic hiccups in satellite reception in about 10- or 15-minute windows as a particular station has a hard time picking a particular satellite's signal out from the wash of solar radiation temporarily behind it.

"It really depends on a number of factors about whether you're going to be affected or not. Some of those factors are your physical location of the Earth station, the size of the dish that the Earth station is, and then just weather and variants like this. It's a natural phenomenon, and as long as you're using (geostationary) satellite, it will occur twice a year," Morris said.

It's one of the unique characteristics about being in Alaska, Morris said.

"In the Lower 48, with the exception of Indian reservations, you really don't see satellite figuring into people's day-to-day communications," he said.

Not so in Alaska, where satellite is used much more frequently in communications, since Alaska doesn't have the terrestrial connections that the Lower 48 does. Solar outages don't affect land-based services, such as fiber optics and microwave. So they're less of a problem in areas with more access to ground-based services. Solar outages particularly affect rural Alaska, Morris said.

"Telemedicine, distance education, voice, any type of Internet-type stuff would be affected by this," Morris said.

KBBI and KDLL public radio have issued warnings to listeners that their signals might be affected. If so, radio would cut out, then reappear. Likewise for affected phone calls -- one second they're connected, the next they're out. TV signals can be affected more gradually, with the picture degrading, followed by a period of complete outage, then the picture improving again.

Morris said the solar outage period should be nearly over.

In the meantime, take a breath, have a snack, maybe gaze out a window. That lost signal will be found again eventually.

"Welcome to Alaska. Lower 48 people don't have to think about these things," Morris said.

Jenny Neyman is editor of The Redoubt Reporter, where this article first appeared. It is republished here by permission.

Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that geostationary satellites orbit at an altitude of about 22,000 feet. The dimension has been corrected to 22,000 miles.