Iridium halts service; feds seek alternatives

Iridium halts service; feds seek alternatives

By William Jackson

GCN Staff

The bankruptcy of Iridium LLC and the demise of its global satellite phone service has left the Defense Department with hundreds of very expensive paperweights.

The department bought about 800 Iridium handsets, DOD spokeswoman Susan Hansen said. The handsets cost up to $3,000 each.

'The Defense Department in-vested in a secure gateway in Hawaii, and we had hoped to use the Iridium services for secure communications,' she said.

But the Washington consortium, now in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, announced the shutdown of its
service March 17 after a court-imposed deadline for finding an investor passed without a viable offer.

The department is assessing how it might use the equipment it purchased. High-quality digital switching equipment from the gateway might have residual value, Hansen said. 'But the handsets are unique to Iridium. They might have some use in the cellular mode, but most of the investment probably is lost.'

Overall, the DOD investment was relatively small and the impact of the interruption of service was minimal, Hansen said.

'It wasn't fully fielded,' she said. The department is considering alternatives, such as its own UHF satellites and commercial Inmarsat service.

Where to turn

The General Services Administration also is lining up other service offerings for its customers.

'Customers are being notified and informed of alternative pro-viders,' said April Ramey, director of the Innovation Center of GSA's Federal Technology Service. 'Our providers are working with customers who have a need for Iridium service.'

Iridium service was available under the FTS contracts of Motorola Inc.'s worldwide information network services, Hughes Global Services Inc. of El Segundo, Calif., and John Tidrow and Associates Inc. of Fayetteville, N.C.

The service saw only limited use, primarily as a backup, Ramey said. Few if any customers used it as a primary means of communication.

'People used it for the Y2K period because they were worried about being without communications,' she said.

The Iridium consortium labored for 10 years to launch a constellation of 66 low-Earth-orbit satellites that provide global voice and paging services via handheld telephones. The technology worked, but the service and equipment were expensive, and rapidly growing cellular phone services reduced Iridium's market to a niche by the time the consortium rolled out the service in November 1998.

The company sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection the following August after defaulting on $800 million in debt. It began notifying customers last month that it had enough money to continue operations only through March 17.

'Unless a qualified buyer comes forward and provides additional funding by Wednesday, March 15, we do not expect Iridium service to be available after 11:59 p.m. EST on Friday, March 17,' the company wrote.

Iridium announced March 17 that it was ceasing its commercial services as of midnight.

The exact fate of the service and the satellites is'like the satellites themselves'up in the air for the time being. Motorola, a member of the Iridium consortium, announced that it would continue to maintain the satellites 'for a limited period of time, while the deorbiting plan is being finalized.'

What happens to the satellites will depend on the bankruptcy court, but deorbiting probably will mean that Motorola will bring the entire constellation'66 operational satellites plus a handful of spares'out of orbit to burn up in the atmosphere one at a time.

Temporary service

'The continued availability of Iridium service during this time will depend on whether the individual gateway companies, which are separate operating companies, remain open,' according to a Motorola notice posted on the Web at www.motorola.com/satellite/info.

The company's Iridium service providers, Motorola Cellular Service Inc. and Motorola worldwide information network services, will keep their gateways open. The Iridium North America gateway also will remain open for the time being.

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