Mobile phones go global

You may not have Net access, but speaking to anyone from anywhere on earth will soon be possible, writes Steve Homer
You don't often need access to a Web page in the middle of the Gobi desert, but I am sure that, sometimes, it must be essential. A bit more likely is needing e-mail access or access to an office network in deepest Sussex or the Scottish Highlands. And help may be at hand - if a little slowly.

Back in 1989, Motorola floated the idea of a constellation of 77 satellites which would orbit just 800km above the earth compared with the 36,000km for a "normal" telecom satellite. Being close to the Earth's surface, the radio signal from the satellite would be stronger and the phones the customers used would also need to send out a less powerful signal. That meant the phone could be pocket sized. With its 77 satellites winging around the earth the project was dubbed Iridium, after the element which has 77 electrons flying around its nucleus.

For at least a year, coverage of the project was entirely sceptical. But soon Motorola attracted investors into the $3.3bn project and imitator after imitator appeared. The first was Globalstar, a consortium that today consists mainly of telecom operators. Then came Inmarsat, with a project now called ICO. And there have been others proposed.

Iridium has moved very fast. It launched its first five satellites on 5 May, 17 are already in orbit (although one appears to be malfunctioning) and the system should be operational late next year. Globalstar expects to be operational in early 1999 (although it has yet to launch a satellite) and ICO expects to open fully for business in 2000. Their data performance varies from poor to modest. GSM phones today will operate at 9,600 bits per second and are expected to be able to offer much higher rates in a year or so. Ordinary landline modems today operate 33,600 or even 56,000 and are no doubt going to get faster.

However, Iridium has a maximum data rate of 2,400bps. ICO will offer a receive rate of 9,600bps with a send rate of just 4,800bps. For its part Globalstar claims it will offer 9,600bps in both directions, although analysts are sceptical about this claim. But by the time these services start to become popular the expectation of the average mobile business user will have skyrocketed.

There are suggestions that GSM networks could support a modest improvement to 14,400bps data calls next year but within about two years new technology will boost that figure up to 64,000bps. But hard on the heels of that will be third-generation mobile phone systems that will eventually support up to 255,000bps in urban centres. And these services may start as early as 2002.

Several companies have looked at transferring data over mini-satellites. Bill Gates, in his capacity as richest man in America and not as head of Microsoft, together with Craig McCaw, owner of a highly successful mobile phone operation, announced Teledesic to a disbelieving world in 1990. Part of the disbelief was the complexity of the system. Originally planned to use 840 satellites, the system has been cut down to a mere 288. However, before all you laptop-users get excited, although Teledesic can offer data rates in the millions of bits per second range, its real market will be to supply telecoms infrastructure to fixed locations. Two other data-specialist systems have arrived. French telecom giant Alcatel proposed SkyBridge and more recently the business has come full circle.

In July, Motorola announced it was proposing a $12.9bn system to address the data market but, once again, mobile users seem to have been left out. Celestri, as the complex project is known, will offer similar services to Teledesic and Skybridge.

Given the revolution Iridium will bring to the world of voice communications, it is a little odd that the mobile data user seems to have been almost totally forgotten. When Iridium comes on stream, apart from the poles, there should be literally not a place on earth where you cannot make and receive a phone call. All the proposed phone systems will integrate with GSM networks so you can use conventional cellular structures. This infill in GSM black holes will be useful for many business people and as data becomes more popular there would appear to be a profitable niche market to tap.

But even the organisation charged with promoting mobile communications, the Mobile Data Initiative, which links together many computing companies, mobile phone companies and others, has its head firmly buried in the sand.

"We haven't been talking to satellite companies yet," admits Johann Webber, director of wireless data communications at Intel, who has worldwide responsibility for the MDI. Given the lead time in developing satellite systems, users must hope that the MDI starts looking at the space sector soon or it might be 2050 before you will be able easily to access that Web page in the Gobi from your pocket phone