Iridium Plans Next-Generation, IP-Based Satellites

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Iridium Satellite LLC, the company that raised Motorola Inc.'s expensive space-based network from the ashes of bankruptcy, is now planning a new generation of satellites that may be able to continuously monitor the environment and take pictures of Earth.

Iridium was launched in 1998 as a go-anywhere phone service aimed at executives, with outdoor coverage almost everywhere on the planet, including the north and south poles. But its high price and bulky handsets doomed the network to financial failure. The craft stayed aloft and the current company, which took over in 2000, has had more success selling data communications to government and industries such as shipping and aviation along with voice, according to Matt Desch, Iridium's chairman and CEO.

Next week at the Satellite 2007 conference in Washington, D.C., the company will unveil an initiative called Iridium Next to build a next-generation network, or "constellation," of satellites. Over the next two years, Iridium will consider technologies and seek partners and financing for the system, which is expected to cost more than US$2 billion to build and deploy, becoming fully operational by 2016. Future services could include environmental monitoring, photography and a geographic positioning system to complement the current GPS (Global Positioning System), Desch said.

The current system, consisting of 66 satellites that form a mesh network, provides a baseline speed of only 2.4K bps (bits per second) but supports voice calls, e-mail and exchange of some data such as a ship's position, Desch said. The next generation may have speeds up to 10M bps and provide a broadband data experience, he said.

The new satellites may be able to constantly monitor environmental factors such as temperature and the level of the oceans around the world, according to Desch. They could constantly take pictures so enterprises or consumers could monitor facilities or homes anywhere in the world. And working with GPS, they could provide location accuracy down to feet or inches, he said.

The next-generation system will be totally based on IP (Internet Protocol), making it easier for Iridium to take advantage of new technology advances and for enterprises to integrate services into their existing applications, according to the company. Iridium sells more data modems than handsets today, and with the next generation it hopes to bring those modems down to a single chip that can be built into more devices, Desch said.

Iridium Next will gradually replace the current generation of satellites, which are expected to reach the end of their useful lives starting around 2014, Desch said.

Iridium sells wholesale access to the network that is then resold by partners, Desch said. Voice calls cost end customers about US$0.80 to $1.50 per minute and data services are typically priced per packet, he said. Modems cost about $300 and handsets start at about $1,200.

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