Iridium – a very expensive and not very successful satellite venture

Motorola laid plans for a satellite phone system way back in the early 1990s, when different countries were using different and incompatible analogue cell phone technology. In the USA cell phones registered in one state would not work in another.

The idea of a global system with one handset working anywhere in the world, sounded wonderfully attractive.

Motorola’s original scheme was to launch 77 satellites which circled the earth in a pattern of low orbits which were cleverly mapped to ensure that a handset on the ground could always “see” at least one satellite overhead in the sky. So the hand-set could receive and transmit even in cities and valleys where there is no line of sight to a satellite in geo-stationary orbiting over the Equator.

The name Iridium was chosen as the 77th element. Later Motorola decided to cut costs by launching 66 satellites with half a dozen working spares, but did not change the name to Diasporum.

Motorola built a factory in Arizona to mass produce the satellites and control them in orbit. After test transmissions, Iridium “started its commercial phase on November 1st 1998”. Poster adverts promised international cover. In the UK Iridium’s European head office in Germany referred all enquiries to Orange, but Orange told enquirers that there would not be a commercial launch until the last quarter of 1999. The handset would cost at least £2,000 and there were no call tariffs, but calls were expected to cost several pounds a minute.

The omens were not good. The first review samples had very limited battery life, and provide erratic connection. The GSM digital cell phone standard was by then being used in many countries, and local operators had roaming agreements which let travellers use their phones abroad. Roaming was becoming normal in the USA.

Although Iridium phones ccould be used with a modem and PC to send data, the standard had been set ten years before when modems were slow. Iridium handled data at only 2.4kolobits/second which is one-quarter the speed of a GSM cell phone, which itself seemed painfully slow compared to 56k PC modems which cost next to nothing.


Bob Tomalski, a technical editor for What Cell Phone? magazine, managed to borrow an Iridium cell phone to try in Europe. “Speech quality is appalling”, he reported. “It sounds like talking underwater through bubbles. At 2.4kilobits, it would take all day and cost a fortune to send a picture. It’s Stone Age technology trapped in Space.”

Iridium soon went bust and the network was sold for a knockdown price – it now serves people in places, like remote mountains, deserts or ice flows, who will pay a high price for any call at all.