03/12/2002 12:00AM

Theory: Simulcasts zapped by AWACS


Any fan who has spent time in a simulcasting facility is aware of one of the greatest annoyances in betting on televised horse races: intermittent blackouts.

Simulcast operators long have believed that the blackouts are caused by solar flares, also known as sunspots, or other atmospheric phenomena. But officials at a racing-industry contractor, Charlson Broadcast Technologies, say that the probable cause of the most troublesome blackouts is interference from AWACS, high-tech airplanes deployed by the United States Department of Defense.

Charlson's director of operations, Kevin Goemmer, based in the Cincinnati area, said he began to research the problem because of the frequent number of blackouts experienced by customers in recent months. Goemmer cited technical details given in an article posted on the website of a wireless engineering consulting firm, ComSearch.com, which he said explained how AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control Systems) flights emit signals of such high power and frequency that many satellite transmissions in a wide radius of their flight paths are affected.

The article says in part that the "unfortunate side effect of these signals is that the operation of these radars is causing interference into satellite earth stations. Most cable operators, broadcasters, and many 'backyard' dishes use this band to receive video news and entertainment programming."

Racing simulcast operations are included in this broad category.

The article states that interference problems have increased since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks because the number of AWACS flights has increased. The planes specialize in detecting low-altitude objects and frequently fly over urban areas.

Major Barry Venable, a public affairs officer with the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which operates under the Department of Defense, said last week that while he was not qualified to comment on the possibility of AWACS flights causing blackouts, he did confirm that the number of flights have increased.

"The flights that formerly occurred over the U.S. were training flights, but since Sept. 11, our operational flights have increased from zero to several per day," said Venable. "The way we use these flights and their radar provides a means of air-space control, generally covering about a 200-mile radius. If there are any events or incidents, the AWACS serves as an airborne controller for fighter response."

Venable said AWACS have been flying continuously over New York City and Washington since Sept. 11. "We also fly over other parts of the country on a varied basis, but we don't discuss the locations," he said.

Capt. Steve Rolenc, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Air Force, said he had "heard rumblings" about interference caused by AWACS flights but was unable to confirm the phenomenon. Judianne Atencio, director of corporate communications for the Dish Network in Littleton, Colo., said she was unaware of increased interference, but added, "That doesn't mean it isn't happening."

Mike Tanner, director of simulcasting at Gulfstream Park, and Greg Bush, general manager of the Trackside simulcast facility in Louisville, Ky., said the most frequent complaint from simulcast fans is about blackouts. "They normally happen for only about 15 or 20 seconds, but as you can imagine, that's like an eternity during a horse race," Tanner said.

Goemmer, a former Midwest race caller, said that Charlson, whose most notable customers are the Churchill family of tracks, recently used a device called a band pass filter in a successful experiment to correct the blackout problem. With the filter, he said, sunspots could still cause occasional blackouts, but AWACS interference would be dramatically reduced.