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History of the Handheld Satellite Phone



Starting with the Iridium satellite phone, Iridium was the first handheld satellite phone to offer planetary coverage. Originally the Iridium satellite constellation consisted of 77 active satellites that orbited the earth from pole to pole. The name Iridium came from the element iridium which has the atomic number of 77. Today the Iridium satellite constellation consists of a system of 66 activate satellites in low earth orbit at a height of 485 miles. The Iridium satellites traveling at 17,000 miles an hour will orbit from pole to pole in 100 minutes. Unlike the Globalstar constellation the Iridium constellation communicate with each other using intersatellite links. This allows for the total planetary coverage only Iridium can offer. Each satellite had four intersatellite links two to communicate with satellites on either side and tow to communicate to other satellites for and aft in the same orbital plane.

The LM700 satellite was first used in the Iridium system. The system used L-Band to provide the global communications. The Iridium system employs L-Band FDMA/TDMA signal at 4.8 kbps for voice and 2400 bps for data. 125 spacecraft built by Lockheed were used to place the satellites in orbit at a cost of $700M. The spacecraft is three-axis stabilized using a hydrazine propulsion system. The spacecraft has two solar panels with 1-axis articulation. Each satellite uses 48 spot beams arranged as 16 beams in three sectors for earth coverage and uses Ka-Band for crosslinks and ground commanding.

The original design of the Iridium satellite was of the a completely static 1960s type design with control and time-triggered messages for an entire orbit that would be uploaded each time the satellite passed the poles. When it was found this design did not offer enough bandwidth to upload each satellite quickly over the poles this design was dropped in favor of a performed dynamic control of routing and channel selection which delayed the delivery of the system by one year.

The satellites use seven Motorola PowerPC602 processors running at 200MHz. Two processors are dedicated to satellite control, one processor is dedicated to cross-link antenna and fourth processor with a spare. A custom backplane network connects all the processors.

The four earth stations handle the downlinks which include the calls from the satellite phone to landline or cellular networks. This works in reverse when a landline or cellular phone needs to make an inbound call to an Iridium subscriber. Calls from Iridium terminal “handset” to Iridium terminal is routed directly through space with no downlinks to the ground stations.

Iridium is the pioneer of Mobile Satellite Services which as the result of ten year of research and development by Motorola. The Gallup Origanization in 1996 conducted a study which concluded the Iridium business model was severely flawed. Iridium decided to move forward with the project and troubled launch. Even with extreme concerns with the project Iridium would move to offer stock to the public.

The Iridium communications service was launched on November 1, 1998 and went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy on August 13, 1999. Investors large and small would never receive any compensation for the collapse of Iridium. Chase Manhattan Bank suited Motorola claming they were intentionally deceived. They claimed Motorola assisted Iridium in attaining an additional $300 million loan from Chase less than thirty days before Iridium’s bankruptcy. Motorola was forced to repay Chase.

Iridium failure was largely due to insufficient demand for the service and poor management. The cost for the equipment and service was out of the range for most customers. Originally the handset was at $1300.00 and the service was at $7.00 per minute. Even though Iridium was offering world-wide coverage the bulkiness of the handset and high cost of the service discouraged customers from subscribing to the service. After spending over $5 billion on the Iridium system they only were able to obtain 55,000 subscribers.

During Iridium’s liquidation current customers suffered with a system that was only half working. Motorola stopped the production of the Iridium phones at the Libertyville, IL plant and closed its satellite communications division in Phoenix. There were eleven independent gateway companies where being dismantled. Plans were made by the Space Command Center to deorbit the satellites four at a time dropping them in the atmosphere where they would burn up.

Numerous unqualified inquires came in for the purchase of Iridium until 2001 when a group of private investors founded Iridium Satellite LLC and re-established service. According to Iridium Satellite LLC they have over 137,500 subscribers at of September 30, 2005. This is a 22% increase from the same time period in 2004. Originally the old Iridium offered hand held phones manufactured by Kyocera and Motorola. The Kyocera SS-66K and SD-66K are not longer in production. After the new Iridium company made systems wide upgrades to the service the Kyocera units provide poor voice service which included dropped calls and period of no service. The Motorola 9500 was the first generation phone which provided good reliable service. Under the new Iridium service the 9500 units would require an software upgrade to provide better quality voice clarity and data service. The second generation unit Motorola produced was the 9505 which was 35% smaller than the 9500 units and was dust and shock resistant. After the second generation phone was produced Motorola stopped manufacturing equipment for Iridium. The third generation phone 9505-A by first appearance is a carbon copy of the 9505 unit the main difference is the accessories and will not interchange with the 9505 or 9500.

Globalstar is a low earth orbit satellite constellation consisting of 48 satellites. The orbits have an inclination of 52 degrees compared with Iridium’s near-polar 86.4 degree orbits. Globalstar does not cover the poles due to the lower orbital inclination. The Globalstar satellites have no inter-satellite linking like the Iridium satellites have. The satellites are simply bent pipe repeaters. Globalstar uses a network of ground stations which provide connection to landline and cellular networks. Globalstar uses bent pipe technology which gives the best call clarity in the industry but because there is no inter-satellite linking a satellite must have a gateway station in view. This does limit Globalstar to a global regional coverage where Iridium with its inter-satellite linking allows it to provide planetary coverage. Globalstar uses the Qualcomm CDMA technology for its satellite mode transmissions.

Globalstar launched the first satellites in February 1998. The system deployment had set backs from the start with a series of launch failures. In September of 1998 12 satellites were lost by the Russian Space Agency. By February 2000 all 52 satellites were in obit four being spares. Full commercial operation started March of 2000 with service in North America.

Globalstar does offer significantly cheaper handsets and service than Iridium. Globalstar’s new Express Data service also allow for higher data speeds of 56K which is hands down faster than Iridium’s 2.4K data rate.

Globalstar was established in 1991 as a joint venture of Loral Corp. and Qualcomm. On March 1994, Globalstar L.P. was incorporated in the U.S. with financial partnerships with Vodafone, Deutsche Aerospace, AirTouch, Alcatel, and Hyundai. July 1998 Loral Space & Communications purchased 4,200,000 partnership interests of Globalstar Limited Partnership from the foundering service partners Vodafone, Deutsche Aerospace, AirTouch, Alcatel, and Hyundai. This resulted in Loral’s ownership in Globalstar Telecommunications Limited form 38 percent to 42 percent. The partnership interests were purchased at a price of $100.00 per partnership interest. Half of the proceeds equal to $210 million were to fund the purchase of gateways and user terminals by the founding service partners. At one point Globalstar led by Loral was partnered with the world’s leading telecommunication service providers including Vodafone, Space/Systems Loral, Hyundai, France Telecom, Finmeccanica/Elsag Bailey Company, Daimler-Benz Aerospace, Elsacom, DACOM, China Telecom, Alcatel, Alenia, AirTouch, and Qualcomm Inc. In February 1995 Globalstar Telecommunications Ltd. raised $200 million from its public offering in the NASDAQ. The IPO price of $20.00 per share peaked to $50.00 per share in January 2000. Stock price fell to below $1.00 per share when it was delisted by NASDAQ in June 2001. The chairman of Loral served as Globalstar’s chairman and CEO until May of 2001.

Olof Lundbery was then appointed as chairman to turnaround the company. Lundbery was a satellite communications veteran serving telecommunications companies which included Swedish Telecom, Inmarsat, and serving as CEO of ICO Global Communications.

After a total debt and equity investment of $4.3 billion, on February 2002 Globalstar filed Chapter 11 in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware. Globalstar would work with its creditors and form a business plan to emerge from the Chapter 11 as soon as possible.

April 14, 2004 Globalstar announced the formal acquisition of its main business operations and assets by Thermo Capital Partners LLC for $43 million. Globalstar was a $5 billion company purchased at a bargain price of $43 million. Thermo will own 81.25% of Globalstar. This will be the completion of Globalstar’s financial restructuring. The new owners announced their commitment to Globalstar’s long term stability and expansion. The remainder of the equity would be distributed to the creditors of the original Globalstar company.

Globalstar the most popular satellite phone on the planet like Iridium had rocky beginnings but Thermo announced several plans to expand the company which included launching eight spare satellites. Enhanced Caribbean and Bahamas service would be established with a new Gateway to be constructed in Sebring, FL at a cost of several million dollars to be constructed in 2004 and operational by 2005. Fax capability was added in 2005 for the hand held GSP-1600 units and fixed site GSP2900 units. Direct access to the Internet and quick locate service was added late in 2005 from the Venezuela gateway.

Thermo is moving forward with a new Globalstar Gateway in Alaska which will be in service early 2006. This new gateway will expand Globalstar’s coverage to virtually everywhere in Alaska as well as offshore including the Bering Strait and the North Pacific. This will be a great benefit to fishing and commercial shipping needing voice and data service.

Globalstar in 2005 Globalstar has run in the black every month and expects a record year. Globalstar the most widely used satellite phone on the planet offers both voice and data communications from virtually anywhere in over 120 countries around the world.

Last on our list of hand held satellite phone would be the Thuraya. Thuraya was founded in 1997 by national telecommunication operators and international investment houses. Thuraya is based in Adu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Boeing Satellite Systems formerly Hughes built the satellite.

Sea Launch successfully launched the Thuraya-1 mobile communications satellite which was the heaviest commercial payload in history. Sea Launch is a multinational ocean based launch service company. On October 20, 2000 the Sea Launch Zenti-3SL rocket lifted off the Odyssey Launch Platform at 10:52 pm PDT at 154 degrees West Longitude. The Thuraya satellite weighed 11,260 pound and was delivered to geosynchronous transfer orbit in two hours and 22 minutes.

Thuraya had a successful soft service launch in May 2001 with limited service in UAE. This trial service expanded to the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sudan, Romania, and Italy. After one month of trials a successful call was made between Morocco and Bangladesh which was the two farthest points with the Thuraya coverage area.

May 2003 Boeing shipped the Thuraya-2 mobile communications satellite from the Boeing facility in El Segundo, CA to the Sea Launch Company to be prepared for launch in early June 2003. This will be the second satellite Boeing has built for Thuraya. When launched, it will be positioned on the equator over the Pacific Ocean.

The Thuraya-2 is one of the most advanced satellites delivered to date. Its powerful processor will handle 14,000 simultaneous phone calls. The Thuraya-2 will be located at the 44 degrees East orbital slot in geosynchronous orbit.

Thuraya coverage footprint includes over 100 countries in Europe, the Middle East, North and Central Africa, the CIS countries and South Asia.

In may ways the hand held satellite phone industry came to the market too fast and too soon and at to high of a cost. The early American Railroad industry met a similar fate pouring too much money into a technology that could not be supported by the market. Like portions of the satellite phone industry the Railroad industry had to face bankruptcy, mergers, and acquisitions before stabilizing.

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