A view of Hurricane Maria from the International Space Station. [Photo Credit: Astronaut Randy Bresnik of NASA, 09.21.2017]
During the last four weeks, those of us living in the western hemisphere have witnessed an unusual number of natural disasters so close together. Since Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas on August 26, 2017, more storms have been brewing. About two weeks later, Hurricane Irma would pummel several of the Caribbean islands and the State of Florida. Hurricanes Jose and Katia would follow with less intensity, but cause damage and flooding for the citizens of Barbuda and those along the Mexican coastline.
This week, Hurricane Maria swept over the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico on Wednesday, leaving the entire island (3.5 million persons) without electrical power. In addition to the above, the Washington Post reported that on Tuesday, September 19th, a 7.1-magnitude earthquake, with an epicenter southeast of Mexico City in Puebla state, occurred 32 years to the day after the country’s worst temblor that killed thousands in 1985, and would come just 12 days after an 8.1-magnitude earthquake rattled the capital and killed 98 people in southern Mexico. To date, the death toll for this week’s earthquake is 273, and is expected to rise.
Photos and videos that were shared by various media sources, agencies, and residents over the past month were heart wrenching and moved many to tears. However, there was one news clip that put a smile on my face. Somewhere in the Florida Keys, as residents were digging out from the debris of Hurricane Irma, one of the locals made his Iridium satellite phone available to anyone who needed to contact relatives and close friends to update their status. No other phones were working in the area.
I hadn’t thought about the Iridium satellite phone in years, and was even surprised to hear that the company was still in existence. While the Iridium phone may not be well known to the average mobile phone user, it offers a unique advantage over other products: it is the only phone that is serviced by a truly global mobile network. Therefore, when cell phone towers and other communications infrastructure are damaged, or don’t work during challenging weather and other natural disaster events like those cited above, or if one finds herself in remote locations that are out of reach of normal cellular coverage, the Iridium satellite phone and its network bridges the gap. Iridium phones and the satellite constellation that makes them operable, have been cited many times for saving countless lives over the years.
Today, operating under the name, Iridium Communications Inc., and listed on NASDAQ as IRDM, the company markets its products and services as the world’s only truly global mobile satellite communications company. My familiarity with Iridium phones and the project that built the satellite network date back to my employment with Motorola in the 1990s. Originally conceived by three engineers in 1987, the Iridium phone was patented in 1988 and later developed by Motorola.
The project was launched under contract in 1993 and the Iridium satellite system became operational and commercially available in 1998. Back then, the company was called Iridium SSC. As I recall, the first phone call that was made on an Iridium satellite phone was placed by then vice president, Al Gore, to his wife, Tipper.
Early engineering calculations predicted that it would take 77 satellites to reach high Earth latitudes with reliable satellite communication services. The name Iridium was chosen after the metal with atomic number 77. Further calculations and refinement showed that just 66 satellites could do the job of providing blanket coverage of the Earth with communication services.
While Iridium met its technical requirements, there were many who thought that the project’s engineering defied common sense. Regrettably, Motorola’s failure to properly market the product led to low demand for the Iridium satellite phone. This was also around the time when the average mobile phone was getting smaller, cheaper, gaining in features, and moving from analog to digital technology. The system met its technical requirements, however, it was not a success in the market. It was too expensive for most people to purchase.
Regrettably, Iridium went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in August 1999. The next task was to destroy those 66 satellites orbiting the earth, but for one reason or another, that never happened. Therefore, when I saw hurricane victims in Florida using an Iridium phone, I said to myself, “you mean that company is still around?” The answer, apparently, is Yes!
One of the positives that came out of the Iridium project was the United States military’s use and reliance on this system. In 2001, a group of private investors would restart the service under the name Iridium Satellite, LLC. One of the product’s selling points is that it is unaffected by local conditions, such as natural disasters.
The new owners were able to develop a different product placement and pricing strategy, offering communication services to a niche market of customers who required reliable services for this type of service in areas of the planet not covered by traditional communication satellite services. These users include journalists, communication companies, explorers, and military units.
In September 2009, Iridium Satellite LLC merged with a special purpose acquisition company (GHQ) created by the investment bank Greenhill & Co. (NYSE: GHL). This would create Iridium Communications, Inc. The company is launching Iridium NEXT, during 2017 and 2018. NEXT is a second-generation worldwide network of telecommunications satellites, consisting of 66 satellites, with six in-orbit spares and nine on-ground spares. These satellites will incorporate features such as data transmission which were not emphasized in the original design.
Therefore, while the project was not successful under Motorola, it is great to see that with additional creativity, innovation, and ingenuity, the company is still around, providing a valuable service, and more importantly, is directly or indirectly responsible for many life-saving rescues.