DOD reserves gateway to Iridium's global satellite service; other agencies mayfollow

The Defense Department is the largest single customer for Iridium LLC’s
financially troubled global satellite communications service.

DOD has reserved one of the consortium’s 12 ground gateways capable of serving up
to 120,000 users and 1,000 simultaneous calls. The Army, Navy and Air Force are testing
ways to integrate the Iridium satellite network into their communications plans.

At a recent briefing at Iridium’s Washington headquarters, officials said the
federal government ranks second on their marketing list, behind the maritime industry and
ahead of the energy and construction industries.

Civilian agencies that have expressed interest include NASA, the Federal Emergency
Management Agency and the Federal Aviation Administration. FAA plans to use the
consortium’s airplane communications equipment for Alaska-to-Siberia air routes.

“We’re hopeful we will have that program up this year,” said Neal F.
Meehan, Iridium’s vice president of aeronautical services.

Iridium began offering commercial service in November on a constellation of 66
satellites circling in polar orbits 485 miles above the Earth. The relatively low orbits
mean that small handsets will suffice for communication. On-board signal processing lets
the satellites hand off signals to each other, giving virtually global coverage.

But Iridium service is expensive—$50 a month per user and $5 per minute for
outbound calls.

Also, capacity is limited. Chief executive officer Edward F. Staiano said the
satellites handle only about 1.5 billion minutes of calls a year. Iridium is developing
products and services for markets such as the government, which already use satellite

Iridium expects to ship its AirSat 1 single-channel aircraft transceiver in April. A
five- or eight-channel model for commercial aircraft will be ready early next year. The
products will leverage Iridium’s acquisition last year of in-flight telephone service
provider Claircom Communications Group Inc. from AT&T Corp. By rebranding in-flight
phone sets, Iridium can make its service available on about 1,500 commercial aircraft and
400 business jets. The in-flight service will cost less than other satellite
communications and less than Iridium’s own ground service, Staiano said.

FAA’s plan for using Iridium on Siberian routes is a small deal, Meehan said, but
talks are under way about using Iridium as a communications element in broader air traffic
control systems.

NASA is testing Iridium for its ER-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, the
civilian version of the military’s U2-S spy plane, he said.

FEMA has shown interest in Iridium telephones for disaster response, said John R.
“Ted” O’Brien, vice president of vertical market sales for Iridium.  

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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