Iridium Satellite LLC, the company that operates the East Valley-conceived satellite telephone system, is laying plans for next-generation satellites that will greatly enhance the network’s capabilities.
Iridium NEXT, as the Maryland company has dubbed the initiative, would have broadband capabilities that would allow users to transmit highresolution video and imaging capabilities that could enhance weather forecasting, officials said.
The $2 billion-plus replacement system could be operating by 2014.
Iridium Satellite will launch a two-year design and development program for the next-generation satellites at a conference next week in Washington, D.C.
“We are making major infrastructure investments, and we are inviting potential partners to work with us on this breakthrough program,” said Matt Desch, CEO and chairman of Iridium.
Financing of the new system could come from the company’s growing cash flow,
which has reached $60 million a year, he said. The company also will pursue financing from the capital markets and strategic partners.
The existing Iridium system consists of a constellation of 66 satellites in low-earth orbit, which relays voice and data messages around the world. Using hand-held units, subscribers can make telephone calls to and from anywhere in the world, including the most remote polar regions.
The $5 billion first-generation Iridium system was designed in the late 1990s by Motorola’s Satellite Communications division, now the Networks and Enterprise division, in Chandler.
Faced with increased competition from the growth of terrestrial cell phone systems, the more-expensive Iridium service was unable to attract sufficient customers and went into bankruptcy reorganization. The system was purchased at a bargain price by a private group, which operates it as a niche provider of wireless phone services. The U.S. Department of Defense has become an important user, and it also has found customers in the mining, maritime, oil and gas, and other industries. Iridium phones have been used in disaster recovery operations such as Hurricane Katrina, when land-based telephone systems are knocked out.
The company said it had 175,000 subscribers at the end of 2006, a 23 percent increase from the previous year.
The Bethesda, Md.-based company operates a ground station at the Arizona State University Research Park in Tempe, with about 75 employees.
The existing system can transmit low-resolution images, but it was not designed for applications that require broadband capabilities, said Iridium spokeswoman Liz DeCastro.
The company plans an interim upgrade of the existing network to transmit higher resolution images, but a new constellation will be needed to transmit video, she said. Also the company is studying the possibility of including imaging capabilities in the new satellites that could improve weather forecasting and open new markets for the system.
Other possibilities are improved GPS navigation signals and the ability to communicate with other satellite systems.
To provide backups for the existing ground stations in Tempe and Hawaii, Iridium has opened a third ground station in Alaska and will open a fourth in Norway next month, DeCastro said.
With the company in expansion mode, Iridium Satellite will hire more engineers during the next year to focus on Iridium NEXT work, she said.