Iridium Rises from the Ashes, with a Satellite Access Point!

By Dean ~ September 8th, 2011. Filed under: Industry.
Image of an old Motorola 2-Way Radio

Motorola 2-Way Radio
Credit: Free Paper

I started using Motorola radios at one of my first real jobs with the US Forest Service.  In more recent times, of course, I had a StarTAC and, later, a SLVR (sort of the candy bar format RAZR).  To me the big “M” has always been synonymous with radio.

Sadly, as we are all well aware, the company has had its ups and downs.  One of the more spectacular downs was the unfortunate demise of the business based on the Iridium satellite phone network.  After the 1999 bankruptcy, I thought that the whole system was effectively dead.  Not so fast, apparently.  Thanks to a very interesting post by Arik Hesseldahl, Senior Editor over at All Things Digital, I now know that Iridium Communications has not only risen from the ashes, but is doing quite well in its current incarnation.

Mr. Hesseldahl was kind enough to send me a link to an older article that he wrote about the Iridium Communications resurrection.  It’s a fascinating story, that includes this tidbit:

Image of Iridium Satellite Phone

Iridium Satellite Phone
Credit: Iridium

“The U.S. military is Iridium’s largest customer, making up about 21% of revenues.”   [the story was written in 2009]

Wikipedia sheds some light on the financial circumstances that, at least in part, enabled the comeback:

“Although the satellites and other assets and technology behind Iridium were estimated to have cost on the order of US$6 billion, the investors bought the firm for about US$25 million.”  [in 2001]

Why can’t I find any bargains like that?  Spending $25M for an asset that cost $6B to build is some very impressive deal making.

Anyway, back to the story at hand.  Mr. Hesseldahl’s post shares some particularly interesting news from Iridium, including the introduction of the AxcessPoint.  This device is, essentially, an 802.11 hotspot that uses the Iridium satellite network for the backhaul!  That’s right, you can be sitting in the middle of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness area, fire up your AxcessPoint, which links to the Iridium satellite constellation via an Iridium handset, and check your Twitter stream on your iPhone.  I shouldn’t trivialize this, it’s actually pretty extraordinary.  You have an 802.11 data connection anywhere that you can establish contact with an Iridium satellite.

The data throughput may not be quite up there with what you’d have using LTE in a metro area,

“The connections aren’t exactly speedy. But they’re good enough to handle email and basic Web-browsing.”

… but you’re sitting in the middle of the wilderness, and you have a data connection!

Beyond the obvious cool factor, of course, the possibilities for truly useful products and services (think natural resource exploration, logging, search and rescue, maritime operations, remote monitoring and control, …) are endless.  Fortunately, Iridium is open to supporting these sorts of ideas:

“If you have your own idea for a product that would connect to the Iridium system, you can license the technology and build it around its Core device, which is a credit-card-size voice and data module that some 200 or more Iridium partners use to build devices to track things and monitor equipment in remote places.”

If you’re not up for building a system around the “Core device,” there’s always the option of just writing apps that leverage the AxcessPoint for connectivity from pretty much anywhere.

I’m glad that Iridium made it through to the other side, and special thanks to Mr. Hesseldahl for sharing the back story with me.  This is truly exciting stuff!

Photo of mountain lakes in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness

Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness
Image credit: USFS

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