Nearly 50 years ago, noted British scientist and author Arthur C. Clarke asked a momentous question: Can rocket stations give worldwide radio coverage? The answer to his query came in the form of satellite communications and, subsequently, a revolution in global telecommunications. Now as we approach the new millennium, the advent of mobile satellite services is once again about to change how we communicate.

The concept of mobile satellite services is not new. Ships, airplanes, and trucks have relied on geostationary satellites to provide mobile satellite services for years. Soon, however, low earth orbit satellites will make mobile satellite services available for anyone using wireless, handheld telephones. Any type of telephone transmission - voice, paging, fax, or data - will be able to reach its destination anywhere on the planet via satellite-based wireless personal communications networks. By providing global handheld service around the world, mobile satellite services will bring a new dimension to global personal communications. Indeed, a NASA-commissioned study compared mobile satellite services with personal computers, in terms of their potential impact on our professional and personal lives.

Unlike geostationary satellites, which have an altitude of 35,900 km (22,300 miles), low earth orbit satellites are deployed 700 km (435 miles) over the earth. This low altitude, combined with recent advances in semiconductors, microprocessors, and other technologies, makes it possible to use a handheld telephone. A network - or a constellation - of low earth orbiting satellites is required to provide the same coverage that one geostationary satellite offers at a much higher altitude. Unlike cellular telephone technology, where a user moves through cells, mobile satellite services rely on satellites moving overhead of a user. In effect, the satellites function as cellular towers in the sky. The number of satellites in a network varies, depending on the design of the mobile satellite service. To lower launch costs, rockets will deploy multiple satellites.


Scheduled for full deployment by 1998, the IRIDIUM system is likely to be the first low earth orbit system to provide service. At least several other mobile satellite services will also serve both global and regional markets in the next decade. As with other telecommunications sectors where competition has been introduced - cellular phones, paging, and long distance service - consumers will reap similar benefits. For the mobile satellite services industry, competition is expected to offer higher penetration levels, cheaper rates, and a faster roll-out of new technologies and services.

Unlike geostationary satellites, which historically have been owned and operated by governments (or international government cooperatives), mobile satellite services are largely being financed by private investors. It wasn't long ago that satellites were considered too expensive and too closely linked to national security to be owned and operated by anyone other than governments. But new lower-cost, highly secure systems have attracted private investors and made it possible for satellite manufacturers to propose private telecommunications ventures. A turning point for the mobile satellite services industry occurred at the World Administrative Radio Frequency Conference (WARC-92) in Torremolinos, Spain in 1992. At this meeting the International Telecommunication Union granted the required spectrum allocation that enabled mobile satellite services to proceed with technical and commercial development.

The International Telecommunication Union's World Policy Forum on Global Mobile Personal Communications by Satellite is an example that Mobile satellite services must still contend with regulatory issues.. In a 1995 interview with IRIDIUM Today, Scott Harris, then international bureau chief of the US Federal Communications Commission, addressed this topic with optimism. "I think most of the world understands that mobile satellite services have the ability to provide economic benefits," he said. "So I think that most countries are leaning towards ensuring that there is sufficient spectrum for that to take place."

Perhaps the most critical factor in the development of mobile satellite services is cost. The IRIDIUM system, for example, will cost US$3.37 billion. An international consortium of telecommunications and industrial companies has raised $1.9 billion for the development and construction of the IRIDIUM system. This was the largest private equity placement of its kind in history. By raising an unprecedented amount of private equity capital, Iridium LLC demonstrated that global investors recognize the potential of mobile satellite services.

One of the greatest advantages of mobile satellite services like the IRIDIUM system will be their ability to offer satellite phone service in areas with incompatible cellular standards. Roaming agreements must however be reached to allow a subscriber to use the same phone and the same phone number anywhere in the world. It's important to note that mobile satellite services are designed to be complementary to landline and cellular telecommunications networks. The majority of calls will either originate or terminate over conventional communications hardware, adding traffic and revenue to domestic networks. Since the system identifies the location of a call, it guarantees the licensing authorities revenue, just the same as a service provided by the existing public-switched telephone network.


The advent of mobile satellite services provides undeveloped or underdeveloped countries with the opportunity to take advantage of the latest satellite technology. Since mobile satellite services are largely privately funded, and in many cases do not rely on either governments or local postal, telephone, and telegraph agencies to pay for the cost of the satellite networks, a country does not need to invest in the system to participate in the service. Free from the financial commitment and technical risk related to developing a satellite network, governments can license a variety of mobile satellite services and enjoy the competitive benefits.

Mobile satellite services will provide governments and service providers with economical alternatives. One of the greatest concerns for both developed and developing countries is providing telecommunications to rural areas. Mobile satellite services are ideally suited to improving telecommunications in sparsely populated areas, or where citizens have little purchasing power to afford telecommunications services. Often a country's unserved or underserved communities are not just the smallest or most remote villages. In many cases, services are also needed in communities on the outskirts of cities, as well as in the smaller cities, towns, and villages.

The ability of mobile satellite services to provide interim solutions for unserved or underserved areas is changing the economics of providing telecommunications to rural areas. Mobile satellite services will make a communications infrastructure almost instantly available. Soon national telephone operators will have a cost-effective way to provide service in areas where telephone system infrastructure costs have been prohibitive.


Mobile satellite services will be indispensable to relief organizations for use in damage assessment and coordination of resources. Unaffected by weather and damage to local telephone systems and power lines, portable handsets for mobile satellite services can be quickly and easily provided for disaster relief efforts anywhere in the world. After an emergency is over, or when regular communications links have been restored, the telephones can be easily relocated. Disaster relief organizations around the world have expressed interest in the new capabilities that will be available with mobile satellite services. Iridium LLC has consulted with many of these organizations, including the United Nations Disaster Relief Organization.


Mobile satellite services will offer a new level of efficiency to international business travel. Business travelers can be connected to their home office no matter where they are located - in a faraway city without compatible cellular infrastructure, aboard a jet somewhere in the sky, or anywhere else where traditional or wireless telephone service is not available. The IRIDIUM system will track the location of the telephone handset and provide global transmission - even if the subscriber's location is unknown. In addition, formerly inaccessible worksites, including offshore oil platforms, mining, and other remote operations will benefit from mobile satellite services.

Mobile satellite services will create new and exciting markets beyond the capabilities of geostationary satellites. From its original concept, a new form of satellite communications has evolved. Like Arthur C. Clarke, global telecommunications continues to make a seemingly effortless transition from science fiction to reality.

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