Ringing the globe at just $3 a minute

May 04, 1998|By ANDREW J. GLASS

WASHINGTON -- Let's say you're in Tibet, climbing up Mount Everest, and you get an urge to talk to a pal in Timbuktu, which is in Mali.

No problem -- as long as you've got $2,500 for a revolutionary telephone and you're willing to fork over $3 a minute in chat fees.

Actually, you'll have to wait until Sept. 23, when a firm named Iridium plans to begin commercial service in 100 countries, including China and Mali. Interlocking rings of 66 satellites, now all but in place, will span the planet all of the time.

"We had an awful lot of luck for this to happen," said Durrell Hillis, who heads up Motorola's space division. "Our biggest break," Mr. Hills added, "was the fall of the Berlin Wall, which ended the Cold War and allowed us to launch [Motorola satellites] from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and from Taiyuan, China."

An orbiting network

Three Motorola engineers conceived what became Iridium in 1988. Along the way, Motorola spun off their brainchild into a stand-alone company that has raised a record-setting $5 billion in private venture capital to form the world's first orbiting phone network.

Mr. Hillis' group hatches the electronic birds on an assembly line in Chandler, Ariz. Satellites not destined for Kazakhstan or China have gone to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where Delta II rockets have hurtled them into space without a hitch.

Although an Iridium promotional video suggests the new phones will appeal to "leisurely globe-trotters," Mr. Hillis doesn't see it that way.

"The business plan [for Iridium] is based on corporate and government users. The consumer market is not really an issue. It has to be justified at the high end, instead of getting hung up on price issues at the lower end."

During the 1991 Persian Gulf war, reporters filed their stories directly from the battlefield by lugging along satellite phones in two mid-sized trunks. In Bosnia a few years later, the phones fit in a briefcase. Mr. Hillis brought along an Iridium phone the size of a familiar slim-line cordless unit.

By 2003, Motorola hopes to have in place its follow-on Celestri global network. Celestri would enable TV networks to broadcast programs directly anywhere in the world, handing governments a fresh set of regulatory headaches. (Boeing and Microsoft are players in a similar system, known as Teledisic, which will be ready at about the same time.)

Mr. Hillis comes over as an unlikely maker of technological revolutions. For an executive who supervises about 6,000 high-tech Motorola workers, he has the air of a successful Midwest car dealer. Back home in Arizona, he's known for having chaired the Phoenix Urban League and the Scottsdale Christian Academy.

FTC Says George Reed-Dellinger, a telecom analyst here: "It's one thing to have satellites up there deployed. It's another thing to have the [Iridium] system work. And another thing to have them competitive with local land-based wireless mobile rates."

Some 483 miles up in the sky, the first two pieces are ready to roll. The final piece -- the financial one -- will be up to the marketplace.

Andrew J. Glass is a Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Cox Newspapers. His e-mail address is aglasoxnews.com.

Pub Date: 5/04/98

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