Cable on the Fritz? Blame the Sun

Twice a year the sun can interfere for a few minutes; it will pass

Friday, Oct 5, 2012  |  Updated 5:32 AM PDT
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Cable on the Fritz? Blame the Sun

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A solar TV outage happens when the sun is behind a satellite transmitting TV signals.

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From Oct. 4 to 12 in North America, for what to some TV viewers may seen like excruciating spans of time, perhaps as long as five minutes, the sun will align with some TV satellites. When this happens, like an eclipse in reverse, it may snuff out the transmission.

Called a solar or sun outage, it happens around the equinoxes, twice a year.

"A solar outage is the sun being behind the satellite from where we're picking services up, and the radiation from the sun interferes with the transmission and signal acquisition," explains Julio Cardiel, director of operations at Comcast's
 national video distribution and operations in Centennial, Colo. "It can be anywhere from 2 to 4 minutes, 5 minutes, depending on the specific service that we're talking about."

There is little you the viewer can do to minimize the effects of this scourge, but luckily there are people like Cardiel spread across the country, who take advantage of "geographic redundancies" to switch from one satellite feed to another to mitigate the sun's effects.

It's not a surprise to anyone in the industry, as they've dealt with it since the beginning. Still, folks in their living rooms can be caught off guard.

The birth of satellite TV can be traced back to sci-fi legend Arthur C. Clarke, who in 1945 wrote an essay titled "Extra-Terrestrial Relays," in which he put forth his concept for global radio coverage. By 1963, Clarke's dream was a reality, as the first TV satellite was launched into space.

By 1965, Early Bird (INTELSAT I), the world's first commercial communications satellite, was launched. Two years later came the first global satellite broadcast.

"The Beatles performed a live rendition of a new song entitled 'All You Need Is Love' backed by an entire orchestra," explains TV satellite historian Mark Long. "For my generation, this was one of the most scintillating moments in television history."

Clarke's knowledge and foresight were formidable, and he even anticipated the issue of sun outages on a very rudimentary level.

"The station would be in continuous sunlight except for some weeks around the equinoxes, when it would enter the earth's shadow for a few minutes every day," wrote Clarke. "The longest period of eclipse would be little more than an hour there should be no difficulty in storing enough power for an uninterrupted service."

The only way to avoid sun outages is to avoid the sun, which cable companies such as Comcast (parent company of this station) do when they can.

"We have direct fiber sources from the program providers, for example, Turner, I have a direct fiber from them," says Cardiel. "They will feed us a direct fiber source from their facility, which is terrestrial, which is not subject to sun interference, but it's subject to other issues--It could be a rancher digging in his backyard."

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