Optus B1 outage leaves all New Zealand Sky TV digital subscribers without service

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Thursday, March 30, 2006 An outage of Optus B1, believed to have occurred due to a problem during realignment of the satellite has resulted in a loss of service to all subscribers of Sky TV New Zealand's Digital pay TV service, an estimated 550,000 people [1]. Sky TV's terrestrial UHF service is unaffected.

Users of the digital service see a rain fade error message which is the standard error message that occurs when signal is lost on Sky's Digital set-top boxes. Sky has temporarily removed the scrambling of their terrestrial UHF Sky Sport channel, allowing anyone able to receive the signal to view the channel (regardless of whether they are subscribers to any of Sky's services). There are 3 other pay TV UHF channels operated by Sky but none of the others have been unscrambled. Original media reports suggest the unscrambling of Sky Sport 1 was done as the NZ cricket award ceremony was being held that evening, however the channel remains unscrambled after the end of the awards ceremony. Sky Sport 1 is probably one of the most popular Sky channels and provides coverage of rugby including Super 14 matches which will be played during the weekend beginning in the evening of 31 March 2006.

The outage began at around 30 March 2006 1850 NZST and is ongoing as at 31 March 2006 0755 NZST. However service has been partially restored as of 0820 NZST. It appears the satellite is still under realignment as not all channels work and with some the signal quality is poor. Certain channels that were available as of 0820 NZST were no longer available as of 0835 NZST.

Sky's website [2] briefly went down and when it returned has been modified to include a special front page mentioning the outage [3]. Their phone service was frequently overloaded (engaged) and plays a message mentioning the outage in a continuous loop with normal voice prompts removed.

According to Sky's media release [4], the Optus B1 is still contacting Optus's ground stations and Optus is currently attempting to realign the satellite. Early media reports had indicated the satellite could be uncontactable [5] and a report on TV3's nightly news programme quoted experts suggesting that it is possible the satellite potentially could not be properly realigned. Earlier reports had also quoted a Sky spokesperson suggesting the problem could be fixed by midnight [6].

The outage has also affected other services using the Optus B1 satellite believed to include some air traffic control functions, some interbank transmissions and also the New Zealand Fire Service in-fill paging service [7]. Other broadcasters using the satellite include TVNZ who offer both their TV channels free to air via the satellite and the Australian ABC and SBS. JuiceTV, a free-to-air terrestrial UHF music channel provided by Sky is also not broadcasting instead displaying the rain-fade error message. NASA TV which is community broadcast in Auckland is also affected as it originates from a free to air broadcast from the satellite.

It has also been reported that the Radio Network analog radio channels have been affected throughout the country [8] and that users of Sky's MySky PVR box are unable to use the box even to watch prerecorded shows as the box needs a connection to the satellite to operate [9].

The TV3 nightly news programme report also mentioned that several pubs had had reduced patronage due to the loss of the sport broadcasting or racing. The New Zealand Herald reported loss of patronage in at least one pub [10]. However the TAB channel which provides coverage of racing events also broadcasts free to air on UHF in cooperation with Sky TV and appeared unaffected at 2245 NZT.

The New Zealand Herald [11] have quoted Sky TV as saying they will consider refunds when the problem is fixed. Legally, most ordinary consumers would potentially be entitled to refunds of some sort under the Consumer Guarantees Act including for any foreseeable losses, although this would not apply to most businesses. At 0700 NZST, the Sky TV website was updated to include the statement "A credit will be applied to all customers whilst the satellite is off air." A link was also included providing instructions for tuning in to Sky Sport via UHF.

The Optus B1 satellite is 14 years old and is considered in urgent need of replacement as it lost its primary SCP on 21 May 2005 [12] and is now running on the one and only backup SCP. It has an intended lifespan of between 10 to 15 years. However the launch of the replacement satellite of the Optus D class was delayed in August 2005 [13] but are now intended to be launched in June 2006 [14].

Sky TV is the predominant pay TV broadcaster in New Zealand and the only one who use satellite. The only other pay TV broadcaster of any significance is TelstraClear who operate a cable network in Wellington and Christchurch reaching an estimated 160,000 households with a reported 62,000 subscribers to their network (this figure likely includes customers who do not subcribe to their TV service). They also provide access to several of Sky's channels. World TV [15] offers several Asian channels using the Sky Network. Mirchee TV [16] offer several channels targeting the south Asian market via a terrestrial setup using satellite receiving equipement.

At present, an auction on TradeMe is attempting to sell the satellite.

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