Satellites signal a revolution in the way we talk

Andrew Marshall in Washington on a technological leap in communications

IF YOU ARE still catching up with the explosion of new information technologies and you've just got used to the idea that the future is wired, then think again. Here comes the wireless revolution, blasting off from California.

The launch of five new satellites in a Delta II rocket from Vandenburg Air Force base, expected today, will complete the complex web of satellites that make up the Iridium constellation. It will enable anyone, anywhere, anytime to stay connected to a phone or pager when it begins operation in September and, eventually, to any other service deliverable down a telephone line.

Iridium is a private consortium bringing together the United States electronics giant Motorola and an array of corporations and investors around the world. The system relies on 66 low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites linked in six different orbital planes that form a web which ties together the world.

With a normal cellular phone, of course, you can communicate internationally - but only if there is a network, and then using the long-distance lines of the country you are in. Iridium users can communicate using only the Iridium system, whether or not there is a cellular network, or use a mixture of Iridium and local cellular.

Satellite phones already exist, using the Inmarsat satellite. But they're big, they need a large clunky aerial, and they are expensive. Iridium phones are little bigger than a normal mobile, and should be cheaper than Inmarsat, the company argues.

The origins of the system supposedly go back to a holiday taken by Bary Bertiger of Motorola and his wife Karen in the Bahamas in 1985. Her mobile wouldn't work; so she asked her husband: "Why can't a smart guy like you make my phone work?"

The answer to that question turned out to be extraordinarily complicated, and has taken 13 years and $5bn. It has involved creating the world's largest private satellite network, agreements with telecom authorities around the world, and software that will locate you and your phone wherever you are, and work out the billing arrangements. Not surprisingly, some Iridium executives can express little but awe. "If you believe in God," said Raymond Leopold, the chief technical officer in 1996, "Iridium is God manifesting himself through us."

But will it work? There are technical obstacles, which required the company to shift from its original vision of a satellite-only system to add in cellular, but the biggest problems, at the beginning, may be business obstacles.

Iridium needs to bring in about 5 million customers to get started. The first generation of customers will divide into two groups, Mauro Sentinelli, executive vice-president of Iridium, believes. There will be wealthy globe- trotters who want to be in touch all the time. - what Iridium calls the "horizontal" customers. And corporations that want to run their own networks in places where cellular phones don't work and there are no landlines - "vertical" customers, often operating in only one country.

As time goes on, costs come down and equipment gets smaller, they expect the first category to grow; but initially, this will require a collection of different gadgets to get the world's different cellular systems to talk to each other.

There will be competition, when Globalstar and Teledesic get similar systems under way. The service won't be cheap, with handsets expected to cost around $2,500, (pounds 1,500) and calls charged at 30 per cent more than existing long- distance calls. The service isn't yet global, since it relies on striking deals with every country in which it hopes to operate. And there are already vast investments under way in new technologies such as super-fast optical fibre networks.

But the future may well be wireless, for many people. In the early years of the new millennium, the number of wireless phones will overtake the number of wired ones. With a wired telephone network, each individual has to be physically connected to the network. With wireless, once the basic infrastructure has been created, you just buy the handset and switch on.

The relationship between cash flow and fixed investment capital makes it very attractive financially, says Mr Sentinelli. He believes there will be pressure for single solutions: companies will want easy technical answers, and consumers will want to deal with as few suppliers as possible.

In the US, there is a solid single wired network created by AT&T, but highly fragmented mobile systems, with many different standards. In Europe, there are dozens of national wired networks, with different plugs, regulations, standards and operators, but GSM has rapidly grown up as the single mobile system. In Europe, wireless will probably triumph, while in America, wired has the advantage, Mr Sentinelli says. In developing countries - especially those that now have low levels of telephone penetration, and where distances can be huge - wireless may make sense as a first step, using solar- powered telephone booths in the most remote sites.

Satellite phones, cellular phones, computers, televisions, and normal, wired phones will become harder to distinguish. And if you are speaking on your mobile via satellite and land line to someone on a cordless phone, then is it wired or wireless?

Leading article, page 18

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