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Iridium, Globalstar Eye Innovation

By | March 29, 2004

      The original investors of low-Earth-orbit satellite services Iridium and Globalstar who lost nearly all their money could not be blamed for regretting that either multi-billion dollar venture was built. Now that Globalstar is on the verge of joining Iridium in the post-bankruptcy phase of existence, both are in a position to tap into their full range of technical capabilities without the onerous debt payments that put a financial stranglehold on each of them during their initial rollouts.

      Arlington, Va.-based Iridium Satellite LLC last week announced the launch of a new satellite fax service that will permit its subscribers to send and receive faxes from any location in the world. The service would work with standard fax machines as well as being able to connect with Wi-Fi networks.

      The first-of-its kind global satellite fax service supports inbound and outbound faxes through a “UniHub” interface developed by Bethesda, Md.-based On-Go, a global wireless service provider, Iridium officials said. UniHub is a plug-and-play system that extends the functionality of Iridium satellite phones to include fax and other data services, such as Wi-Fi integration.

      Fax calls are routed through Iridium’s global constellation of 66 orbiting satellites. The new service supports a broad array of data capabilities, such as text-based e-mails, through the Iridium phone and an attached fax machine. The service also can bundle data from a ship’s GPS receiver, for example, and transmit the information via e-mail to a land- based Internet destination to track ships.

      Commercial fishing, mining, and oil and gas exploration are among the industries that have critical need for global fax and data services, said Will Kraus, an Iridium spokesman. The new capability will allow users in those industries to perform their duties in the face of sometimes inhospitable and remote environments.

      Frankly, fax capabilities seem to be an antiquated technology in many offices these days. Indeed, the proliferation of e-mail and high-speed Internet access appears to put faxing way down the list of preferred modes of communications. However, fax services for those at sea or on oil platforms might find a modest niche market.

      A positive characteristic of the new service is that Iridium is tapping its unique status as the only company to offer truly global satellite voice and data service across all regions of the Earth. Not even oceans, airways or the Earth’s poles are excluded from the reach of Iridium’s satellite constellation.

      Iridium already is serving land-mobile markets, and it is extremely well-suited to serve the maritime market because of the company’s “complete global coverage,” Kraus said. “With no gaps or dead spots globally, we are really well-positioned for use in shipping, fishing and recreational boating,” Kraus explained.

      Roger Rusch, who heads the Palos Verdes, Calif.-based TelAstra satellite consulting firm, said he suspects the Iridium system is limited to 2.4 Kbps, a factor of six slower than typical faxes. A need may exist for fax services in extreme conditions but there also are more modern alternatives, including flatbed or hand scanners that create compressed digital files that can be sent over the Internet faster, even if the Internet data rate is only 2.4 Kbps, he added.

      London-based Inmarsat, for instance, provides much faster transmission rates of up to 128 Kbps or more, and it is available almost very where in the world except at the poles, Rusch said.

      Globalstar Groundwork

      Globalstar is on the verge of wrapping up its bankruptcy process that began during February 2002, while also following Iridium’s path of upgrading its services. It is undertaking engineering and development work aimed at providing enhanced service coverage and system capacity for its customers in the Caribbean and the southeastern United States. The worthwhile goal is improved call connectivity and reliability as well as a greater capability to handle anticipated call traffic in those regions.

      Improvements in Globalstar’s Caribbean service are expected to begin in April, when the company is scheduled to complete installation of a new fourth antenna at its existing gateway in Las Palmas, Puerto Rico. The new antenna will provide greater reliability and redundancy for Globalstar service across the eastern Caribbean and parts of the Atlantic Ocean.

      Later this year, site preparation and construction work are expected to begin on a new gateway in southern Florida to provide additional coverage and service capacity across a broad area spanning from the Bahamas and the southeastern United States to the Gulf of Mexico and the western Caribbean.

      Globalstar’s prospective buyer, Thermo Capital Partners, is attempting to acquire the mobile satellite system’s assets shortly after this Wednesday’s scheduled bankruptcy court hearing aimed at gaining court approval for a restructuring plan. That step would be the “last major condition” prior to formal approval from the court and a pending “settlement agreement” involving Globalstar, its creditors’ committee, Thermo and Qualcomm [QCOM].

      The pending agreement would give Thermo a 81.25-percent ownership of a new company that eventually would pay $43 million to take control of substantially all of Globalstar’s assets and operations. The remaining 18.75-percent equity in the new company would be retained by Globalstar for future distribution to its creditors under its bankruptcy plan. Additionally, Globalstar’s creditors will have the right to purchase additional equity interests in the new company for an aggregate ownership interest of as much as 36.37 percent, Globalstar officials said.

      A new, accelerated phase of expansion and growth by Globalstar is expected once the sale of its assets is completed, added Tony Navarra, the company’s president.

      –Paul Dykewicz

      (Will Kraus, Iridium Satellite LLC, 703/465-1031; Mac Jeffery, Globalstar, 408/933-4434; Roger Rusch, TelAstra, 310/373-1925)