What’s NEXT for Iridium satellite system ?


On July 25, 2018, a Space-X Falcon 9 rocket will launch the seventh Iridium NEXT mission. This second-to-last launch will increase the total number of Iridium NEXT satellites in space to 65. The final launch will will deliver the last 10 satellites for a total of 75 satellites in orbit. In total 81 satellites comprise Iridium NEXT with 66 in the operational constellation (six polar orbiting planes, each made up of 11 birds), nine serving as orbital spares and six as on earth ground spares. This constellation will completely cover the entire planet with reliable satellite connectivity and will replace the original Iridium network that was deployed in the late 1990’s by Motorola.

The Iridium network has always been the go-to choice for connectivity anywhere in the world. It’s story is a fascinating one (see my book review at http://www.amitel.com/trenchs/ ) and it has survived and flourished because its users love it. The phone works anywhere on the globe, including the Arctic and Antarctic regions and has thus made it a favourite of first responders, scientists, adventurers, journalists, explorers, the military and spies.

The technology upgrade that Iridium NEXT provides will allow for a new global broadband service beyond the current telephony and low speed data service. More bandwidth with higher throughput and faster speeds will support a host of new broadband services and devices across oceans, airways and the polar regions. Crucially , it will also be backwards compatible with current devices, in fact will provide improved performance and reliability to devices such as the Iridium 9555 phone and the Iridium Extreme.

So , while others such as Elon Musk (Space-x) and Jeff Bezos (Open Web) plan on launching constellations of satellites to provide a global broadband service, the Iridium system has already done it and is building upon an established user base that values the service and the connectivity it provides anywhere on the planet.

Iridium Extreme 9575 Satellite Phone

Iridium GO! 9560 Satellite Terminal with Wi-Fi Hotspot

Garmin 010-01735-10 inReach Explorer Plus Handheld Satellite Communicator with Maps and Sensors

Do I need a Satphone ?


These days almost everyone in Canada has a smartphone. It seems that we can’t live our lives without one. But what do we do when we are out of range of a cell-tower signal ? How do we remain connected and not panic when we have zero bars on our phone and there is no WiFi available ? That is when a satphone becomes essential.

Satellite phones (Satphones) have been around for over two decades, since the early constellations like Iridium were put into orbit in the late 1990’s. Some people think that satphones are only for large corporations, the government or mountain climbing expeditions but that is not true. There are many important reasons for ordinary Canadians to have quick and efficient access to reliable communications. Here is why you should have communications anytime, anywhere.

First, and most importantly, satellite communications are critical during and after natural disasters. Canada is not immune to severe weather and emergencies that can knock infrastructure like cell towers out of commission. We have seen this with the ice storms in Quebec , fires such as the one in Fort McMurray, the floods in Calgary and Winnipeg, extensive power outages in Ontario, avalanches and tornados. During a disaster, often the only communications network that remains working is the satellite one and it is vital for relief work, search and rescue and letting loved ones know your status.

Additionally, satellite phones can be an important lifeline during recreational activities. We Canadians love our great outdoors and we revel in activities like back country skiing, hiking, sailing, mountain biking, and hunting. We know that adventurers trying to break world records in remote areas of the world such as Mount Everest or in the Antarctic or Arctic carry satphones. They are just as useful in Northern Ontario, or the Rocky Mountains or even at the cottage where you’re out of range of a cell signal.

What about your job site ? Many Canadians still work in resource extraction industries, whether it is mining, forestry or oil and gas. Staying connected via a satphone is essential to some industries, especially when driving down some remote highways where there are no gas stations or other traffic for long stretches.

So what kind of satphones are there ? The traditional ones like Inmarsat are based one geo-synchronous orbits (ie they look stationary from earth) and some (like Thureya) don’t cover North America. The GEO ones have a long delay as the signal has to travel up 22,236 miles to the bird and then back down. There is one network, Iridium, that covers the entire globe using LEO (low Earth orbit) satellites that have almost no delay and that is well suited for providing service in Canada. They have many solutions depending on how you want to stay connected using satellite communications. Two of the most popular are a standalone handheld satellite phone, or alternatively turning your own existing smartphone into a satellite phone.

The Iridium 9555 and Iridium Extreme are two of the most popular Iridium handheld products. Both phones feature up to 30 hours of standby and four hours of talk time, in a small and very durable structure. Through talk and text, the Iridium 9555 and Iridium Extreme can save lives. The Iridium Extreme also has e-mail messaging capability, Google Mapping services, and GPS-enabled location-based services.

Iridium GO! is the innovative product which transforms your smartphone into a satellite phone anywhere in the world. Compatible with Apple and Android, Iridium GO! extends the use of your smartphone and devices. The Iridium GO! app extends your connection, optimizing you for voice, SMS, e-mail, 100-foot radius of WiFi for up to five devices, weather monitoring and more.

Whether you are making a disaster prep plan, heading our on a wilderness trip, or like the ease-of-mind of being accessible during your adventures, having the right resources in place for any situation is crucial. That is why a satphone can be essential to living an active life outdoors in Canada.

Iridium Extreme 9575 Satellite Phone

Iridium GO! 9560 Satellite Terminal with Wi-Fi Hotspot

Garmin 010-01735-10 inReach Explorer Plus Handheld Satellite Communicator with Maps and Sensors

Garmin inReach Mini – Lightweight and Compact Satellite Communicator, Orange, 010-01879-00

Mother’s Day

There is a great anecdote in the book “Eccentric Orbits – The Iridium Story” that I reviewed in a previous post.

It was May 9, 2004. The technicians at the Network Operating Centres for the Iridium satellite system in Hawaii and Arizona noticed a high level of dropped calls (more precisely failure to connect) and a very high level of traffic in general. They were confused because everything seemed to be working normal, and the system could hand almost 100,000 calls at a time and there were barely 140,000 handsets in service at the time.

Then they noticed that all the calls were coming from one particular place, massive numbers of people were all trying to call over the same satellite. That is what was taxing the system, a specific geographic overload. You see, there were 146,000 American troops stationed in Iraq at the time. And that year, May 9 was Mother’s Day.

The only situation that could max out the Iridium system was Mother’s Day in a war zone.

Anyone who has spent time in network or traffic engineering for a telco knows that the busiest day on the network is Mother’s Day. Even more than Christmas, or any other holiday. That is why I laughed when I read that story as it immediately resonated with me. All these soldiers and Marines HAD to call home on Mother’s Day.

So make sure that your network is ready for this Sunday, because the traffic is going to ramp up bigly.

And don’t forget to call your Mother !

Iridium Extreme 9575 Satellite Phone

Tales from the Telecom Trenchs

I am a long time voracious reader. It is a habit developed as a kid and I’ve kept it up throughout my life. Usually, in the hour before going to bed I try to turn off all electronics and spend some time reading. Often, I will also cart my latest book(s) with me to lunches, meetings and appointments so that I can dip into it if I have some time available.

My interests are wide, and includes non-fiction as well as fiction. Philosophy, histories, biographies, business books and self-help tomes are all of interest to me. Over the last year, there have been a few outstanding books on telecom that I wanted to share here with you.

Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story by John Bloom

I read this book over the Christmas holidays as mentioned in my Jan 7, 2018 blog post on quality six-sigma. I learned from it that the Six Sigma management philosophy on eliminating defects was pioneered by Motorola (and then exported to General Electric and to Japan). This book covers the history and the fascinating story of the Iridium LEO satellite system built by Motorola and the huge commercial and political battle to save it from being destroyed due to bankruptcy.

The story itself is fascinating, both from a revolutionary technology perspective and from a business, military and government perspective. It gives some great insight into the thinking that goes on behind the scenes and behind the headlines and how one determined man can make a difference.

It is also very relevant to our current times as there are now multiple groups trying to launch new LEO satellite constellations to provide broadband Internet anywhere on Earth; Elon Musk’s Space-X (Starlink), Richard Branson’s (and Qualcomm and Softbank) OneWeb (to be launched using Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin), and Mark Zuckerburg’s PointView Tech (Athena). The race to provide space-based connectivity has drawn interest from all of the Silicon Valley heavyweights.

I highly recommend reading this book as it will provide some useful context to the upcoming space-based battles as well as being a great tale on its own.
Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story

Iridium Extreme 9575 Satellite Phone

Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of Blackberry
by Sean Silcoff, Jacquie McNish

This is the story of the Blackberry, from the company formerly known as Research in Motion. Told by two veteran Globe and Mail, Report on Business journalists it brings to life one the premier Canadian technology success stories.

This was very fascinating to me as I lived through this time and this story. Blackberry is headquartered here in Waterloo; this is a very local and vary familiar story. I recognized many of the people and events in the book and found it incredible to read it all again.

It highlights the founders Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie and how they revolutionized telecommunications by inventing a whole device, the smartphone. There was a time where the “Crackberry” ( a very addictive device) was THE phone to have; whether you were in business, finance or even the President of the USA.

Yet, from the heights of owning the market, Blackberry fell due to a combination of factors, all outlined in this riveting tale.

Again, highly recommended both as a celebration of a Canadian success story, but also as a cautionary tale.
Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of Blackberry

Broadbandits: Inside the $750 Billion Telecom Heist by Om Malik

This book is now almost fifteen years old. Om Malik is someone I have immense respect for. He was an investigative reporter when he wrote this before he launched GigaOm, one of the top technology and business blogs in the world and turned it into a media company and research firm. He is now a respected venture partner at True Ventures.I follow Om on social media and always look forward to his curated reading list each week.

Broadbandits is another story that I personally lived through, and it also brought back many memories and many emotions, including a lot of swearing. It describes a lot of the financial fraud behind the telecom bubble of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Telecom giants such as WorldCom, Global Crossing, and the financiers and stock pundits who ended up causing huge financial losses.That telecom bubble affected me directly, as we were just in the process of trying to sell AMI when the market collapsed. Many friends lost a lot of money in the stock market collapse of these frauds.

Reading this book brought it all back to me. If you have been in telecom for a few years you will recognize some of these stories and may have the same reactions I did. If you have been in telecom for less than a decade, read this book to find out the real history and some of the deceit and lies and fraud that preceded you. Either way, it is important to remember the Wild West days of a stodgy industry like telecom here in North America (and Canada was NOT exempt).

Again, highly recommended.
Broadbandits: Inside the $750 Billion Telecom Heist by Om Malik (25-Oct-2004) Paperback

Satellite Phones

The most expensive destinations on any A-to-Z wholesale rate sheet are almost always satellite phone networks. Depending on the satellite network and its design, they can be used to provide voice, text and low bandwidth Internet access in specific regions or the entire Earth including Antarctica and the North Pole.

Satphones are ideal for certain applications; on board ships and airplanes, for remote resource industries such as mining, oil and gas exploration, natural disaster recovery scenarios and they are very popular on expeditions into wilderness areas where terrestrial cellular service is unavailable. Government agencies and militaries also find them quite useful.

Traditional satellite networks are based on satellites in geostationary orbit, which are meant to remain in a fixed position in the sky relative to an observer on Earth. Geostationary satellites are 35,786 km above sea level so there is a noticeable delay when talking over them as the signal has to go up to the satellite and then back down. Examples would include Inmarsat and Thuraya.

There are also satellite networks that rely on a constellation of satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to provide worldwide coverage including the polar regions. The LEO satellites orbit the earth at altitudes of only 640 to 1120 km so their delay is negligible and goes unnoticed during a call. Examples would include Globalstar and Iridium.

These networks show up on wholesale A-to-Z rate sheets because satellite phone are issued with their own special country codes.

Inmarsat has been issued with codes +870 designated SNAC for Single Network Access Code. Prior to 2008 there were separate codes for geographic regions such as the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, and Atlantic Ocean East and West). Inmarsat was originally created to provide a communications network for the maritime community. Inmarsat now has a variety of services beyond the strictly maritime such as Aeronautical (for aircraft obviously), BGAN (IP based Broadband Global Area Network), M2M for machine to machine applications such as IoT. Other services such as B, M and Mini-M were closed Jan 2017.

LEO systems that provide global coverage are issued virtual country code +881. Iridium satphones have country codes +881 6 and +881 7. Globalstar is allocated +881 8 and +881 9. Calls to both networks can be very expensive, thus it is possible to call them with charges reversed (i.e. paid by the satphone customer) by first dialling a number in the USA. That way the receiver pays the standard rate for satellite to landline calls , but the caller only pays for the domestic USA call.

Smaller regional satellite phone networks are allocated numbers in the +882 code range designated for “international networks”.

Finally, the voice codecs used in satphones have very aggressive voice compression due to the limited bandwidth. The sound quality will exhibit a clipping effect. Satphones use far less bandwidth than a 3G cellphone or a G.729 IP call. Thus it is even more imperative to access these numbers with as high quality a connection as possible to maximize the intelligibility of the speech.

If your business or commercial customers require operating in remote regions of the globe, away from cellular networks (which would include most of Canada !) then have them consider satphones and then route their traffic via AurorA’s premium connections for maximum quality.

Iridium Extreme 9575 Satellite Phone