Iridium Satellite Phones

Could these be the phones of the future? Iridium satellite phones are capable of impressive communication feats, but are so far very costly.
By Sam Martin
August/September 1999
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Someday soon, Iridium satellite phones could enable users to make phone calls from anywhere on the planet.

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Ever find yourself hundreds of miles from any major town, lost on some dirt road and in need of a phone because your cellular lost its signal hours ago? Iridium, the first and only satellite phone made by Motorola, its Japanese counterpart Kyocera and newcomer Globalstar could be the the answer.

With 66 satellites already in operational orbit around the globe and six more poised on the launching pad, the newest high-tech toy to come out of the telecommunications industry offers the ability to make or receive a call literally anywhere on the planet.

Named for the element on the periodical table with 77 electrons orbiting its nucleus (after the originally planned number of satellites; the count has since dropped to 72), Iridium technology is the brainchild of a Motorola executive whose eureka moment came when his wife wanted to call home from a remote island in the Bahamas but couldn't.

His idea gave rise to a $5 billion dollar deal, spearheaded by Motorola and joined by Sprint, Italy's Stet and the Saudi Binladen Group (yes, the same family who exiled member Osama bin Laden), that has brought Iridium services to 165 countries.

The revolutionary phone uses the most complicated system ever undertaken by a telecommunications company—one that requires 12 land-based relay stations around the world, as well as the integration of 17.5 million lines of computer codes. Figure in an extremely complex billing system and working out your local phone bill will seem like counting peanuts.

For now the phones cost a very hefty $3,000 and soak you for up to $3 a minute, as Motorola and its partners try to recover the high costs of getting the project off the ground. Obviously, the current target market is a small, rich niche. However, up to a million phones are expected to be shipped by the end of this year and Motorola executives claim that in about 18 months the Iridium wireless will more than likely be available for half the current price. Combine that with budding competition groups like Globalstar and satellite technology will soon be at our fingertips. Whether on a boat in the Pacific, in the jungles of Honduras or up a mountain in the Himalayas, you'll never be too far off the beaten path—like it or not.

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