Space: High Speed Sat Phones


March 2, 2017: Satellite telephone service provider Iridium put its first next general Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit in January and should have all 66 of the first generation (1990s tech) satellites (plus ten spare) replaced by 2018. These satellites are in a low (780 kilometers) orbit that provides global coverage. Each Iridium NEXT satellite weighs nearly a ton (860 kg) and when its solar panels deploy is 9.4 meters (30 feet) wide. These will provide much faster and reliable data speeds (520 kps up and 1.5 mps down).

The U.S. Department of Defense has been a major customer of Iridium since 2000 and will continue to be a major user of the Iridium NEXT network. But the price of Iridium service has come down to the point where a growing number of commercial and individual users have become regular customers. That’s how it was supposed to be in the beginning, but wasn’t.

The Iridium satellite system was originally created and put in orbit during the late 1990s at a cost of $5.5 billion. Alas, not enough customers could be obtained for the expensive satellite telephone service, and in 2000 the company was not only broke but no one wanted to take over its network of 79 satellites. The situation was so dire that the birds were going to be de-orbited (brought lower so they would burn up in the atmosphere.) Then the Department of Defense stepped in with an offer. For $3 million a month the Department of Defense would get unlimited use of up to 20,000 devices (mostly phones, but also pagers and such.) That was enough for someone to come in and take over the satellite system (which cost more than $3 million a month to operate) and make a go of it. The new owners didn’t have the $5.5 billion in debt to worry about and were able to lower prices enough that they were able to sign up 80,000 other customers (civilian and military.)

The Department of Defense paid about $150-$200 a month per satellite phone account under the 2000 contract. Civilian customers paid more and the company thrived. Now Iridium has finally launched a new generation of satellites that will provide faster and cheaper service.

Iridium survived in large part because of the Pentagon business that grew larger after September 11, 2001. In 2013 the Department of Defense signed a five year, $400 million contract with Iridium. There are currently over 50,000 Department of Defense and other U.S. government Iridium users.

Back in 2000 the plan was that each combat brigade would have over 500 satellite phone accounts. That was never needed, in part because the air force and navy wanted lots of satphones as well and the army began using portable satellite dishes to obtain high-speed service from military and commercial communication satellites.

The NEXT satellites became absolutely necessary because of the new (since 2015) Iridium GO! service. Iridium GO! is basically a small (11.4 x 8.2 x 3.2 cm, receiver the size of a small paperback) that is actually a lightweight (300 gr/10.3 ounce) battery powered (15 hours standby, five hours talk) modem/router. Iridium GO! devices can connect to the Iridium satphone network and provide a local wifi hotspot. Up to five users with a wifi devices within about 30 meters (a hundred feet) of the Iridium GO! can have Internet access. That means PCs, smartphones or tablets can use texting, Skype to make phone calls or a browser for web search and limited downloading (2.4 kps). With new Iridium NEXT satellites that speed will increase about 200 times (over 500 kps).

All of this uses military grade encryption. The Iridium Go! receivers cost the Department of Defense $600 each and the Iridium service is taken care of by the contracts the Department of Defense has had with Iridium for over a decade. Currently the Department of Defense (which also provides other government agencies with satphone service) is Iridiums largest customer accounting for about 20 percent of revenues.

The GO! devices are also available to commercial users via pre-paid plans; $520 for 200 minutes of voice or 400 minutes of data. There is also a 500 minute plan for $740. Large commercial users can, like the Department of Defense buy GO! connect time in bulk for even less per minute. The Go! devices cost commercial users about $800 each.

The Iridium and other satellite communications capability was the key to making the battlefield Internet work, although the army has found that it’s more efficient (and cheaper) to use military radios and other wireless devices to network with each other and get Internet access via satellite dishes connected with the military satellite communications system. But for many small units out in the bush Iridium is still the way to go. Foreign aid and disaster relief organizations have also found Iridium and similar networks a literal lifesaver in areas lacking much of a communications infrastructure.




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