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New 9555 Iridium handset released

The Iridium satellite network releases its third-generation handset. It is smaller, lighter, and more functional than any of its predecessors.

The new Iridium 9555 satellite handheld looks and acts like a cellular, but operates virtually anywhere in the world. Marc Weber Tobias

Iridium has begun delivering its latest generation handset, which signals a new era for the global satellite carrier. It has been several years since any significant changes have been made in its handheld equipment, so for current users, this should be welcome news. I received one of the first 9555's that was delivered to World Communications in Chandler, Ariz., by Iridium. It has been a primary vendor for Iridium from the first implementation of the network. The new handsets, with accessories, sell for about $1,700, and according to Iridium, are available now.

The Iridium network, conceived, engineered, and built by Motorola, launched in 1997 as the first commercial constellation of 66 low earth orbit (LEO) satellites, crisscrossing the planet at about 500 miles above the Earth. The network was designed to provide secure communications on a global basis from a handheld that weighed about 12 ounces and could fit in your back pocket. While traditional geostationary satellite services, such as Inmarsat, requires the radio to be in one position during use so that the antenna can lock into a satellite beam, Iridium is entirely different. The system works while flying, driving, walking, or onboard a ship. I have had extensive experience with the Iridium network since it commenced operations, and have used each of the three different handsets (the 9500, 9505, and 9505A) that were available prior to the 9555. This system currently offers voice and data communications virtually anywhere, even in the most remote regions of the world, as I can personally attest.

There are several noticeable improvements in the latest phone in terms of design, operation, software, and functionality. After placing a few calls on the new handset, I can say that the audio quality seems to be much improved from my older 9505 unit. I recorded one of the calls that I made to an associate so you can judge this for yourself. The handset closely resembles a larger cell phone, but works very differently with regard to its communications path and network infrastructure. The menu system, display, and software of the 9555 have also been updated. The package is about 30 percent smaller than its predecessor, the 9505, and the special antenna has been redesigned to retract into the body of the radio, rather than rotating and swinging upward to a vertical position. The battery charging system is also better in terms of size and connector. The handset now has a USB data port and new software for simplified Internet access. Although the transmission speed is still very slow, at 9600 baud, it is acceptable for e-mail when there is no other available service.

The communications security of the Iridium network is assured because of the way it transmits data from the handset to one or more satellites, then to a network gateway and the public switched telephone network. The satellites all talk to each other across the constellation in order to relay signals to a gateway facility, but the information is not repeated down to the ground, so intercept is extremely difficult. Even if the 1,640Mhz signal could be captured directly from a handset, it would not provide much intelligence because of the way in which the network is configured. As an example, I was in Havana, Cuba last year and needed to make secure telephone calls back to the U.S. Cuban authorities routinely monitor cell phone traffic but are unable to listen in on Iridium. If you routinely travel to countries where you require the ability to communicate by voice or data without fear of eavesdropping, then Iridium is an excellent solution.

The prime North American competitor is Globalstar, which was originally launched at about the same time as Iridium. The Globalstar network is also based upon a LEO satellite constellation, but the infrastructure and transmission protocol are quite different than Iridium. Their 48 satellites operate about twice the distance from Earth than those of Iridium, and talk to different ground stations that are operated by various Globalstar partners. The network filed for bankruptcy in 2002 but came back two years later after an infusion of capital from Thermo Capital Partners. Unfortunately, Globalstar has been experiencing significant technical problems which have affected its coverage and reliability of service.

Iridium filed for bankruptcy in 1999. When it shut down, the network consisted of 13 planned or constructed gateway facilities throughout the world. The system was supposed to be decommissioned, but at the last minute, it was decided that Iridium could be a vital military communications asset, especially since one of the network operation centers was built in Hawaii specifically to handle all of the government traffic. An entrepreneur purchased the entire Iridium system for about $25 million and then signed an agreement with the Department of Defense to supply communications to the DOD, state, and other government agencies. When it resumed operation, the system was locked into the original two handsets. The 9500 and 9505 (and the slightly modified 9505A) were all that were available because the prime supplier, Motorola, was out of the picture. The network and current handsets have continued to provide primary handheld satellite communications for the Defense Department and state in Iraq and virtually everywhere else in the world. Iridium is utilized for mission-critical applications by many government agencies and private industries. The cost of a call is $1 to $2 a minute, depending upon pricing plan. It is competitive with cellular, but offers a much more cost-effective solution for portable-to-portable communications when roaming overseas on GSM networks.