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Satellite networks get boost

Orbital Sciences begins in-orbit testing of eight satellites that will send messages and monitor and track data.

Two-way data communications via satellite got another boost today when Orbital Sciences said it had started the in-orbit testing of all eight of its recently launched satellites.

The 90-pound satellites will orbit the earth at an altitude of about 510 miles. Commercial operations are expected to begin in about three months.

The publicly held company is offering two-way data and messaging communications through international licenses and through resellers in the United States. The communication consists of sending messages and monitoring and tracking data rather than surfing the Net, a spokeswoman said. More satellites will be launched next year.

Data communications via satellite is poised for expansion, many analysts say, although it faces both technological and marketing hurdles.

But the idea is gaining in popularity. Last week, for example, Alwaleed bin Talal, Saudi Arabia's billionaire prince, said he plans to invest in Teledesic, according to a statement from the prince as reported by Reuters. "Prince Alwaleed plans to invest in a joint project with Teledesic to finance and launch a network of...satellites that will transmit voice, data, and the Internet," the statement said, without offering further details.

Teledesic's founders include Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates and McCaw Cellular founder Craig McCaw. Teledesic plans to launch its low-orbiting satellites after the turn of the century.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig also has formed a company, called Sky Station, to send wireless Net signals from blimp-like devices at an altitude of 100,000 feet.

Motorola also announced plans this year for a satellite network to deliver data and video to business.