All 66 of the new Iridium Next constellation of satellites are fully operational and are available globally. They are replacing the older Iridium satellites, which will be de-orbited in the coming months, and while they will work with existing ground equipment, they provide substantially improved capabilities.
Those new capabilities include much better bandwidth than other low-Earth-orbit satellites; new features including Aireon, a global flight surveillance system; and support for a new smaller class of satellite transceivers aimed at internet of things (IoT) and telemetry operations. With Aireon, the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 in March 2014 would not have happened.
“Everything is operational,” said Iridium CFO Tom Fitzpatrick. “The last Iridium Next satellite is carrying traffic and replacing the last satellite from the previous network.”
The previous generation of Iridium satellites could handle communications at speeds up to 128K bps, which is about the same as the ISDN lines of the last century. The Iridium Certus network can handle speeds up to 700K bps, with speeds of 1.4M bps to be available soon. Right now, this is the best bandwidth available from low-Earth-orbit satellites.
Speeds Are Plenty Fast Enough
While speeds in the neighborhood of 1 megabit per second may not sound fast in a world of gigabit fiber, the fact is that they are plenty fast for the uses that the folks at Iridium anticipate. According to Fitzpatrick, Iridium added about 600,000 IoT connections in 2018. This is in addition to users of satellite phones and communications terminals for uses such as ships at sea or airliners.
In addition, Iridium is adding a variety of new types of satellite terminals, ranging from a WiFi hot spot called Iridium Go for smartphone texting and calling to Garmin’s inReach devices that provide satellite data connectivity. Larger devices from third-party partners include crew communications terminals for ships and aircraft to IoT devices on everything from remote reporting sites to telemetry for heavy equipment and railroads.
A new type of transceiver was shown during today’s announcement that is designed to expand the IoT market for Iridium. It’s the Iridium Certus 9770, which is about the size of an iPhone X. The new transceiver can be used for pretty much any type of data an IoT device might produce, including telemetry, pictures, voice calling and internet access.
Unlike some earlier data satellites that weren’t really global, the Iridium Next constellation covers the entire globe, including the poles. This is useful for oil exploration, aviation and shipping—not to mention scientists doing research at the poles.
It should be noted that there are satellites available that can handle much higher data speeds than Iridium, such as the Hughes Networks Jupiter satellites that can handle up to 200M bps. However, the Hughes satellites operate in geosynchronous orbits 22,300 miles above Earth. This is high enough that there’s significant speed-of-light latency involved. You know those awkward pauses you see on news reports from distant events? That’s the kind of latency caused by the distance to a geosynchronous satellite.
Proximity to Earth Eliminates Some Issues
While the Iridium satellites don’t have the benefit of appearing motionless in the sky like the Hughes Jupiter satellites, the fact is that they’re much closer to the Earth. This effectively eliminates speed-of-light issues, and it also means that you don’t need a large antenna—and you don’t need transmitters that put out a lot of power. This is why Iridium can make do with handheld satellite phones and satellite transceivers the size of a cell phone.
For enterprise users, network systems such as Iridium offer some substantial benefits. As I’ve mentioned many times before, a reliable satellite phone may be a key element in your disaster recovery plan. It doesn’t depend on the cellular network or even the power grid, and that means you can reach out in an emergency. In addition, you have a way to reach the people necessary to help you continue operating your business, even if it means finding a way to move into a temporary office.
But the other opportunities are also significant. You now have a way to track your company assets anywhere. You have a way to monitor operations and performance of remote sensors and equipment, and you have a way to communicate with employees when other ways might not be available. And remember: Much of Earth, including the U.S., is totally without cell phone or landline service. Your organization may find itself having to reach staff in areas that may not be remote so much as they may not be connected.
I recently ran across this problem while doing critical work. I was visiting a rare highland malt distillery in central Virginia, and I wanted to pitch an editor with a review of the Virginia Distillery. I’ve since found that a large number of similar establishments, including most of the wineries in the Shenandoah Valley, are without cell service. If that’s not a critical issue, I don’t know what is.
Of course for your company, other priorities may control your decisions. But emergency communications are always relevant. Now that there’s a way to have those communications easily, with products you can buy on Amazon for a reasonable price (meaning less than an iPhone XS), it would seem to be an important investment.