Iridium's Satellites Find Niche With Reliable M2M in Remote Locations

When critical machine-to-machine communications are required where mobile networks don't exist, Iridium's satellite network can help.

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LAS VEGAS—Satellite communications vendor Iridium has continuously morphed since it was started in 1998 as Iridium LLC with a business plan to sell satellite-based mobile phone communications to users who wanted reliable connectivity anywhere on Earth.

Today, Iridium Satellite LLC is a different company with an expanded mission beyond just satellite mobile phone services. In addition to providing calling services in remote locales where cellular networks are absent, Iridium has expanded its offerings to machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, giving industrial users a reliable way to link to their critical equipment no matter where it is located on the planet.

M2M is now the fastest growing part of the company's business, John Gagliardo, Iridium's director of M2M business development, told eWEEK here at the CTIA Super Mobility 2015 conference on Sept. 10.

"What is new in the past few years is that M2M business is demonstrating growth and that the company has embraced that," said Gagliardo. M2M is essentially the industrial side of the Internet of things (IoT), where companies want to link their equipment assets to each other and to the rest of the business's operations to improve maintenance, security, efficiencies and more, he said.

Iridium does this using its "constellation" of 66 low-Earth orbit satellites, which provide coverage around the world for users, he said. The satellite network extends everywhere, including across the oceans, airways and polar regions, providing reliable communications for industrial users in remote areas. Iridium's users include companies that specialize in maritime services and aviation; government and military services; emergency and humanitarian services; mining, forestry, oil and gas; heavy equipment, transportation and utilities, according to Iridium.

Iridium's M2M services allow companies to track and monitor their remote equipment and other assets around the world using its satellite network where typical cellular communications would be virtually impossible.

For customers, a key benefit of the Iridium network is that a satellite always flies overhead so that wherever needed there is one to provide uninterrupted service, said Gagliardo.

"Heavy equipment companies are a big part of our market because they have fairly low mobility and are usually in one work site," he said. "Plus they are fairly remote, which makes them prime [targets] for satellites."

Today's 3G and 4G wireless networks instead are built to serve areas where the largest populations of residents are centered so that services are provided where people live and work, he said. That leaves roughly 80 percent of Earth's geography where no cellular services exist, he said.

"There is a huge door open for companies like us to go off and provide such coverage," said Gagliardo.

Companies using Iridium services are using them to connect assets globally, including one user that tracks the performance of huge water pumps in remote locations. Other users track the performance and maintenance needs of large engines in desolate locales that are not served by traditional wireless networks.

"You want to know when something is not working right" in the field, he explained. "It's about preventative maintenance. It's about maximizing efficiencies. So a low-earth satellite network is a perfect fit."

The original Iridium was created in 1998 by the former Motorola and several partners for some $5 billion, but it failed to catch on with consumers and businesses because its satellite-based phone services were more costly than those of competing cellular carriers. Bankruptcy came soon after, and the company was reformed in 2000 after its assets were purchased for just $25 million by new owners.

Starting later this year, Iridium will begin replacing its original 66-satellite network with new equipment that will be placed into orbit on rockets. The new satellite network, called Iridium NEXT, will see the first two new satellites launched on one rocket from Russia, said Gagliardo. Successive launches will launch 10 satellites at a time from the United States. The entire fleet is expected to be replaced by the end of 2017.