Satellites proposed to contact anyone on globe

March 28, 1994|By Chicago Tribune

Remember that dream about a quiet place with no phones, no faxes, no way for anyone to bug you?

Get your brochures fast. Check the calendar.

For this, too, is about to pass.

The wired world hasn't shrunk that fast. But thanks to advanced computer technology, "star wars" experiments and some highly successful business people with more than stars in their eyes, we are likely to become less and less dependent on the wires that bind us.

A $9 billion satellite proposal announced last week by William H. Gates III, chairman of Microsoft Corp., and Craig O. McCaw, chairman of McCaw Cellular Communications, would create a world where anyone, anywhere, can send a message, file a report, get a medical update, say hello.

The potential may not seem as great for those already at home in their electronic cottage, chatting with the world via computer and telephone, or for those dialing it up from their cellular phone as they drive.

But it could make a big difference for those who can't.

It will matter in the world's unwired places: in deserts and on mountaintops, in cities where generations wait for telephone service and even when it arrives it is inadequate, and in poor villages where an outside link can mean life or death.

Mr. Gates and Mr. McCaw, who have delivered on their dreams before, want to send up 840 satellites by 2001, keeping them about 435 miles above the Earth. That would be low enough, they explain, for good communications. Most satellites now call home from 22,282 miles up.

Experts reply to this global brainchild from two of the nation's most admired business visionaries with a stream of questions and a list of obstacles.

First, they say, the technology, which borrows from some of thegovernment's "star wars" experiments, is not perfected.

L Moreover, they wonder who can afford such a vast enterprise.

Maybe a few large businesses will be able to foot the bills, the skeptics say. But how can those who live in the communications-deprived Third World afford this technological genie?

And how about the head start that Schaumburg, Ill.-based Motorola Inc. has with its $3.5 billion plan for a similar network, called Iridium? The project has already raised a reported $800 million.

"This new plan is really noncompetitive relative to Iridium," contends John Windolph, a spokesman for Washington-based Iridium Inc., owned by Motorola.

Iridium will use 66 low-orbit satellites to ring the Earth and provide instant mobile communication between people anywhere using small hand-held telephones or laptop computers.

The phones or computers will receive narrowband signals directly from satellites no matter where they are on Earth, rather than from the transmitter towers that connect cellular systems. The satellites for Iridium are expected to be launched in 1996.

In contrast, Teledesic Corp., the company announced last week, plans a fixed broadband system. While more powerful, the system could be used only by computers that are usually stationary.

"The Teledesic system offers more services, but it sacrifices mobility to do it," Mr. Windolph said. "So it really isn't a competing system."

On the other hand, this $9 billion gamble comes from two highly successful executives who have built billion-dollar enterprises based on their own visions of the future.

"With Mr. Gates and Mr. McCaw, you don't write off their ideas," said Peter Bernstein, a communications industry analyst in Cedar Knolls, N.J. "Do they face some daunting obstacles? Yes. But that doesn't mean it isn't doable."

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