Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Tuesday 12/02/2002With a whoosh, up go the final five satellites for the Iridium network. Oh, you remember: Iridium.

Tuesday 12/02/2002

With a whoosh, up go the final five satellites for the Iridium network. Oh, you remember: Iridium. Motorola's five billion quid pop at setting up a global telephone network from orbit. Ran out of money in 1999. Nearly got de-orbited.

Now that it's being bankrolled by the US State Department -- and we know what they want a satellite phone system for -- it seems to be thriving. As it supports far fewer subscribers than the original plan assumed, a load of the ground-based support systems aren't needed, so the running costs are down, and it often costs less to use than a GSM phone roaming abroad.

This isn't the first time the US spooks have let third parties use government-funded satellite communications. Throughout the 80s and 90s, a lot of US military global comms were routed through a set of satellites that were little more than orbiting relays. Anyone who knew the frequencies and orbits could point an aerial at them and with the right transmitter get a free link around the world. The chances of being caught were minimal, the military soon gave up worrying, and the careful listener could often pass the evening eavesdropping on Germans talking to remote company outliers in South America.

At least the Yanks have worked out how to make a buck forty a minute out of it. Who says they're no good at wireless?

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