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Iridium beams in more data services

As subscriber demand for data services increases, the satellite phone provider, which originally sold only a very narrow set of voice calling plans, unveils a new short message service.

Iridium Satellite, a provider of satellite phone services, added another data-oriented offering to its quiver on Monday by launching short text messaging.

For now, Iridium's tens of thousands of subscribers will be limited to swapping messages with fellow Iridium customers. By next month, however, users of the company's SMS (Short Message Service) service will be able to trade text messages with any number of U.S. cell phone subscribers, an Iridium representative said.

Iridium's SMS service can send messages of up to 160 characters and will likely put pressure on rival Globalstar Telecommunications to improve its own short message service, which now lets users send and receive messages of up to 19 characters.

Before it filed for bankruptcy protection in late 1999, Iridium only sold a very narrow set of voice calling plans, one of the myriad reasons that the company found itself in financial troubles. The company's new owners vowed to expand the services with data offerings after taking the reigns in 2001.

The SMS service, which costs 40 cents per message, debuts two months after Iridium launched Short Burst Data, which lets subscribers send and receive up to 1,960 bytes of information at a time. Iridium's first data service was wireless Web access.

"We originally weren't built for data, but data users are now on our system five times as much as voice callers," the Iridium representative said. "We didn't go out and say we'd make this a data system. It really came out of demand."