Kinks in satellite communications service delay rollout to Defense

Eleven of the
12 gateways for satellite-to-network
call switching
are operational.

Iridium LLC is delaying its new global satellite communications service by a month
while it works out bugs in the wireless network that eventually will serve 120,000 Defense
Department users.

Iridium had planned to begin the network service early next month, but Edward F.
Staiano, the Washington consortium’s chief executive officer, said the new startup
date will be Nov. 1. Meanwhile, customer trials by 2,000 beta testers were set to begin
earlier this month.

Nearly all of the 66-satellite constellation and most of the ground-based gateways and
control centers are in place and operational.

“There is no one piece of the system that stands out as being a particular
problem,” Staiano said. But the call-completion rate, which had been as high as 87
percent under an earlier release of Iridium software, plummeted after installation of the
final version, Staiano said.

The call-completion rate has since recovered to better than 70 percent and is expected
to reach 80 percent. Another problem is that the system drops about 15 percent of
connected calls. The goal is 10 percent.

“I don’t believe we’ve put enough mileage on the system,” Staiano

Despite the delay, Iridium still is in position to be the first global wireless
service. The consortium has launched 79 satellites into low-earth orbit to pick up, hand
off and relay transmissions to ground stations from almost anywhere on the planet.

The consortium has licenses to operate in more than 100 countries covering about
three-quarters of its projected market area. It also has origination and termination
agreements with private switched telephone networks in most of the market.

Motorola Inc. and Kyocera Electronics Inc. of Japan are making the Iridium handsets.
Iridium officials said software problems have delayed the Japanese models.

Eleven of 12 gateways to switch calls between satellites and ground telephone networks
are operational and the 12th, in China, will start up soon, Staiano said.

DOD has reserved one gateway capable of serving up to 120,000 users and 1,000
simultaneous calls.

The Defense Information Systems Agency is paying $15 million for the gateway, which
will begin handling unclassified traffic this year. DOD plans to use Iridium for
classified service beginning next June.

Monthly Iridium service will cost $50 per user plus $5 per minute for outbound
calls—about 25 percent more than other international telephone calls free of
ground-based wireless or cellular networks.

The consortium has been internally testing the system for about two months by placing
tens of thousands of calls. Staiano said hundreds of thousands of calls are necessary to
find and work out bugs.

Limited operational testing by subscribers began Sept. 14. Beta tests by 2,000
customers were set to begin Sept. 23. Staiano said the beta testers include federal users.

Iridium originally planned for 66 operational satellites in low-earth orbit and another
six as orbiting spares.

Staiano said it is as cheap to launch five satellites at a time as three, and orbiting
does not significantly reduce a satellite’s life span, so more spares will be placed
in orbit rather than stored in warehouses.

In such a large constellation, satellite failures are inevitable, he said. The company
expects one failure every two months.

A Sept. 8 launch of five satellites filled two holes left by failures and put three
other spares into orbit.

At the time, only one potential hole in the system remained, and technicians were
trying to repair that satellite, officials said. 

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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