After what has been described as the biggest single project failure in history, the Iridium satellite telephone system has finally been completed.
The final five satellites of the fleet launched atop a Boeing Delta II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Monday, following three aborted attempts due to weather and instrumentation problems. All five satellites were placed in their correct orbits within 90 minutes of launch. Iridium provides global telephone, fax, messaging and data services through cellphone-sized handsets.
Together with seven existing but inactive satellites, the new launches will act as spares for the 66 already in orbit and active, thus finishing the original planned configuration. Two extra spares are due to be launched in June, although according to Iridium Satellite's chief operating officer Danny Stamp, "in the past two years, the constellation has not required the use of any in-orbit spare." The system is expected to work as-is until at least 2010.
Iridium Satellite is a new company that bought the satellites and other collateral of the system for $20m (£14m) at the end of 2000, following the bankruptcy of the original Iridium. Masterminded by Motorola at a cost around $5bn to create since its inception in 1987, the original system had a break-even point of around a million users. However, GSM networks with roaming took most of its intended market and it struggled to reach 55,000 subscribers by the time it ceased trading in 1999. Most observers expected the company to de-orbit the satellites: however, deals with the US Department of Defense and other US state agencies -- who were already some of the largest users of Iridium -- allowed the new company to set up and run the system.
"It worked very well in Afghanistan," said one source, "as you can give a GPS receiver and an Iridium handset to a local on a horse and tie them into the command and control system in theatre instantly. You can afford to lose a few."
Interest is also being sustained in the developed world, where the service costs -- $21 a month, $1.40 a minute per call to a fixed line or 68 cents between handsets -- are now low enough to compete with alternatives. "People are biting our arms off to get on," said Chris Wood of Applied Satellite Technology in London. "News agencies, yacht owners, and companies with interests overseas are all keen, as it works in places like Nigeria where there's almost no GSM coverage. It costs less than cellular roaming in many places, and people just use it like a cellphone."
Handsets remain pricey, though: the Motorola 9505, for example, is £1,100.
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