Iridium system completes its miracle resurrection
Posted: March 29, 2001

An illustration of the Iridium satellite constellation, which features 66 primary spacecraft in low-Earth orbit. Motorola
Back from the brink of impending destruction, the reborn Iridium telephone satellite system relaunched commercial service Wednesday as the network's new owners prepare to debut data relay services via the orbiting constellation in June.

Just last spring the armada of Iridium satellites appeared headed for a fiery reentry into Earth's atmosphere after lukewarm reception sent the pioneering venture into bankruptcy.

But in a stunning reversal of fate, the $5 billion program was purchased for a mere $25 million by Dan Colussy, a veteran of the aviation industry, who has successfully revamped the system to give it a second shot at surviving.

The new operators of the system -- Iridium Satellite LLC of Leesburg, Virginia -- said Wednesday that more than three months of quality testing had been completed and the service was ready to deliver mobile, global voice telephony services to users around the globe.

"We've conducted tens of thousands of test calls to ensure that Iridium customers will be receiving the best voice quality possible," said Ginger Washburn, chief marketing officer of Iridium Satellite LLC.

The company will launch data services, including dial-up access and direct Internet connectivity, in June. Short burst messaging services are expected to be available later in the year.

An artist's concept of an Iridium satellite. Motorola
"Through a focused approach to fully understanding the needs of our customers, Iridium is positioned strongly for commercial success," said Dan Colussy, chairman and CEO of Iridium Satellite LLC. "Our current operational structure enables the delivery of cost-effective, user-friendly voice and data services, and ensures a low break-even threshold for Iridium."

Iridium's future hinges on targeted industries that the company believes will subscribe to the system for communications to remote areas of the planet where terrestrial telephone networks do not exist.

Such markets include construction, emergency services, maritime, mining, forestry, oil and gas, and aviation. The U.S. Department of Defense is an existing Iridium customer under a $72 million contract for unlimited airtime for up to 20,000 government users.

Iridium has signed agreements with 13 service providers to offer worldwide distribution.

Providers will be selling data-ready Motorola-made handsets, which are currently being shipped. Estimated retail costs for the Satellite Series 9500 are less than $1,000 and airtime rates are expected not to exceed more than $1.50 per minute, with no additional long-distance, roaming, or zoning charges.

Iridium says for the next six months, customers will be able to take advantage of special rate plans offered by Iridium's service providers for handset to handset calls that bypass wireline networks -- a feature unique to the Iridium system.

Former Iridium customers that own phones can contact a service provider to upgrade them for data-readiness, quality voice enhancements and immediate voice service. The smaller, lighter Satellite Series 9505 handsets are expected to retail for $1,500, including accessories, and will be available for purchase in August of this year.

The constellation's 66 primary satellites and seven orbiting spares are now controlled by Boeing, replacing operator Motorola under the previous regime. Seven more spares are due for launch next year.

A total of 88 satellites were launched beginning in May 1997, but several malfunctioned after arriving in orbit.

Lockheed Martin Missiles & Space built the satellite platforms and said the craft would operate up to eight years. The Iridium constellation is divided into six groups of satellites circling 421 miles above Earth.