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Space the place for Net access

The Internet space race is on, as Teledesic puts its first satellite into orbit for high-speed data connections and Internet access.

    The Internet space race is on as Teledesic put its first satellite into orbit yesterday in preparation for establishing a high-speed data connections and Internet access network.

    The satellite communications company won't deploy working satellites until 2001 and should be ready to flip the switch on its network of 288 low-earth orbiting satellites (LEOS) by the end of 2002, according to spokesman Roger Nyhus. Working satellites will orbit 850 miles above the Earth; most existing "geostationary" satellites orbit at 22,300 miles up. By comparison, the Space Shuttle orbits 155 miles above the planet's surface.

    The experimental satellite, launched yesterday from the California coast on the back of a Pegasus rocket, will be used to test various conditions including global position system synchronization, atmospheric drag, and interference from rain, the Sun, and the Moon. It was jointly developed by Boeing, Orbital Sciences, and Teledesic.

    Teledesic was started by cell-phone kingpin Craig McCaw and Microsoft CEO Bill Gates with the vision of providing high-bandwidth communications while bypassing land-based solutions. By the year 2002, though, there will be a wide range of high-bandwidth delivery systems, and satellites will fill a specific need for mobile transmitters, one observer said.

    "Even if the bandwidth problem is solved, the mobility problem will still exist," said Ken Krechmer, technical editor of Communications Standards Review. "There will be a market for bandwidth and mobility, and there will be more and more diversity [of delivery systems]."

    Teledesic isn't the only effort looking to offer a space-based bandwidth solution. Motorola's Iridium project is well on its way to launching a LEOS system for worldwide telephone service. In addition, one company in St. Louis wants to keep high-altitude airplanes aloft 24 hours a day to transmit broadband signals. Former Secretary of State Al Haig heads a company that wants to float data-transmission balloons.

    Teledesic will transmit two-way communications but at different rates. For the company's standard service, the maximum rate will be 2 mbps upstream, but the download rate will be much faster--up to 64 mbps, according to Nyhus.

    Asked if there's a danger of satellites crashing back down to Earth, Nyhus said that prospect was "very unlikely." Each satellite will have extra fuel on board, so when it reaches the end of its life span, it can be steered out of orbit to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere.