Chat Boxes in the Sky

Article excerpt

With the imminent inauguration of satellite networks in relatively low orbits, individuals and businesses will be able to satisfy an unprecedented range of their global communications needs.

You are on a vacation with some friends--hiking, whitewater rafting, driving through unfamiliar territory. It's an adventure, and it's fun. But then something happens--someone gets lost or hurt, and you need help. What do you do? Instinctively, you reach for your cellular phone. But it's dead. It then dawns on you that you're out of range of established cellular system providers. You have to rely on the limited resources you have.

Back in 1985, while vacationing in the Caribbean, Karen Bertiger encountered a situation that was not as drastic but important enough to her. She tried to use her cellular phone to close a real estate deal back home in Arizona, but the connection couldn't be made for the same reason: She was out of range. Expressing her disappointment to her husband, Bary, she challenged him to do something to make her phone work.

Karen's challenge set in motion a process well beyond her dreams. Bary, an executive with Motorola, brought up the subject with people at work, and it turned into a project that was seriously pursued. Now, Motorola and its partners are about to see their years of effort come to fruition in a global, satellite-based, mobile telecommunications network named Iridium. On September 23 this year, Iridium LLC of Washington, D.C., will begin full operation of its constellation of 66 satellites. Iridium LLC is now an international consortium, and Motorola is its prime contractor and investor.

While Iridium will be the first to offer worldwide coverage in this manner, its constellation will not be alone. Orbital Sciences Corporation of Dulles, Virginia, has been independently developing a satellite network called Orbcomm, in partnership with Tele-globe of Canada and Technology Resources Industries of Malaysia. Unlike Iridium, the Orbcomm system is not intended for voice communications, but it offers specialized paging, remote monitoring, short E-mail, and data transmission. Some of Orbcomm's space platforms are already being used in certain areas, but global operation of its 28-satellite network will commence this fall. This constellation will soon be expanded to 36 spacecraft.

In the ensuing months and years, a host of new satellite networks backed by other companies will follow suit. Together they promise to extend the coverage of today's cellular telephones and pagers to virtually any place on Earth. Some will allow remote sensing of pipelines and tracking of cargo. Others will offer Internet access to previously unreachable location. Most will be useful for emergency operations such as search-and-rescue mission and disaster relief in hard-to-reach locations. Eventually, they will bring relatively inexpensive communications capabilities to millions of people in areas of the world where current phone and paging services are inadequate if not unavailable.

What's new?

Of course, satellite-based communication systems and services are not new. They have been operational since 1965, used mainly by military agencies, global corporations, and TV and radio broadcast networks. So what's new?

Conventional communications satellites are in geostationary (or geosynchronous) Earth orbit (GEO)--that is, each one moves at a rate that matches the speed of Earth's rotation, thereby appearing to hover above the same terrestrial location. Placed at an altitude of about 22,500 miles, three or four such satellites can service the entire globe. But each satellite, as big as a bus, can cost up to $500 million to build and launch, and the end user must acquire expensive equipment, use large power sources to reach the satellites, and pay high per-minute transmission fees. On these terms, most businesses find the GEO system impractical for applications such as two-way messaging and remote monitoring. …