Iridium's number is up
Bankruptcy hearing puts an end to remote phone system

Terry Kruger
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Mar 20/00) - Hand-held satellite telephone units that once sold for up to $5,000 are little more than "expensive paper weights" after the Iridium phone system was disconnected Friday.

The system began as an idea of a Motorola engineer who wanted to provide wireless hand-held telephone transmission anywhere on the planet. It took shape in late 1998 with a network of 66 low earth orbit satellites. The $5-billion (US) system owned by U.S. firm Iridium LLC sought bankruptcy protection in August. The company told an American bankruptcy court Friday that it was unable to find a qualified buyer.

With that, the process of winding down operations and sale of Iridium's assets was set to begin.

While that happens, Motorola says it will continue to maintain the satellites until a deorbiting plan is being finalized. They will also work with subscribers in remote locations to find alternative communications.

In Canada, Iridium is owned by a consortium of companies -- including BCE Mobile Communications, Bell Canada International and Motorola Canada Inc. Infosat is the service provider for Iridium Canada. News/North was unable to contact the company for comment at deadline.

Sales of the Iridium phones were put on hold for the past week. Until then, however, the price of the phones had dropped to between $1,350-$2,400. Airtime ranged up to $2.59 a minute for calls.

In the North, suppliers and users -- which reportedly number in the dozens and who include the military and territorial government -- have been left in the lurch.

The territorial government and military don't have a lot of the phones and don't express a lot of concern about Iridium's demise, but the phones did play a role in their communication systems.

"It's not our primary means of communication," said Lieut. Mark Gough, public affairs officer for Canadian Forces Northern Area Headquarters.

The GNWT's emergency services department relies more heavily on the hand-held satellite phones. They have nine.

"We've had them for over a year," said emergency co-ordinator Max Rispin. "They work very well."

The major benefit of using the Iridium system, he said, was that the phones worked anywhere in the territory, because the system's satellites circled the Earth in a polar orbit.

"We don't know where incidents will be in the Northwest Territories," said Rispin. "If you're out in the wild, they're really, really good."

The size of the phone made them perfect for their role. Weighing in at 14 ounces -- slightly more than a cell phone -- they are easily transported. Emergency services' other satellite phone system, called M-Sat, is the size of a suitcase and weighs 29 pounds. That's perfect for a base camp, but is not suited for bouncing around on the back of a snowmobile.

The department also has access to the hunters' and trappers' high-frequency radio network.

Resources, Wildlife and Economic Development use the M-Sat system in their vehicles.

The Iridium phones also got a publicity boost in the North last year when a float plane crashed July 20.

The Air Thelon pilot used his Iridium phone to call search-and-rescue officials within 10 minutes of the crash.

Bright future for competition

While an American bankruptcy court hung up on Iridium Friday, Canada's other provider of a hand-held satellite phone, Globalstar, sees a bright future.

"Anywhere on the (NWT) mainland, we have had 97 per cent call success," said John Jaque of CasCom, a Northern supplier for Globalstar.

The Iridium phones can't be used on competing networks, causing some people to say would become "expensive paper weights."

Globalstar's service was only launched in February and the company's Canada general manager, Peter White, said consumers should not be wary of buying into the system.

"The one thing for Globalstar is the way we've set up the network is a more applicable model for success," said White from Mississauga, Ont.

"We have a number of strong financial partners."

Globalstar expects to have three million users worldwide within five years.

One drawback for the North is that because Globalstar's 24 satellites are on an equatorial orbit, reliability North of the 70th parallel isn't guaranteed.