Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Iridium Makes Satellite Connections as Easy as Wi-Fi

When you work on an oil platform in the middle of the ocean or in some remote desert somewhere and you need to make a phone call, chances are your iPhone or BlackBerry just isn’t going to do you much good. Wireless phone networks tend to work where people live and work, and not where they don’t. The same thing is essentially true for Wi-Fi networks.

It’s for reasons like this — and in no small part thanks to the fact that the U.S. has been engaged in two or three wars — that the Iridium satellite phone system that once seemed to perfectly symbolize the overreaching ambitions of the late 1990s telecom boom exists. Following the 1999 bankruptcy of the original Motorola-backed venture, it has undergone a fascinating reorganization and rebirth over the last decade. Iridium has not only survived but thrived as a data and voice platform that companies in specialized segments turn to when they want to build products and services designed to make voice and data connections possible in places where no other means are available. I talked with CEO Matthew Desch about all this in June.

So today, Iridium made a handful of announcements that give some interesting indications of future directions. One is a Wi-Fi-enabled device called the AxcessPoint. Think of it as a satellite-enabled Mi-Fi that will get an iPhone or notebook PC or Wi-Fi-ready BlackBerry connected to the Iridium data network from whatever ridiculously remote spot in the world you find yourself.

The AxcessPoint requires a physical connection to an Iridium phone, and it just so happens that the company launched one of those today, too, called the Iridium Extreme. You might think this would have been an obvious need before, but this phone has been ruggedized so it can survive the rough and tumble that its users might put it through. The company says it’s built to Military Standard 810F, which is a fancy way of saying something like it takes a licking and keeps on ticking.

There’s not much need for making, say, a satellite-ready standalone smartphone, Desch told me when we talked last week. (That’s him holding the new phone and Wi-Fi gadget in the picture.) There is value in making your existing phones work in some way with the Iridium network. “We think it should be easy for other personal devices to have a satellite connection,” he said.

The connections aren’t exactly speedy. But they’re good enough to handle email and basic Web-browsing. Don’t bother trying to stream “Glee” via Hulu over an Iridium connection, though if you’re using it, you probably have other things on your mind.

Probably more important than the access point or the phone is what Iridium calls the brains of the hardware. If you have your own idea for a product that would connect to the Iridium system, you can license the technology and build it around its Core device, which is a credit-card-size voice and data module that some 200 or more Iridium partners use to build devices to track things and monitor equipment in remote places.

Those partners are making Iridium’s data business bigger. While voice is still its main business, accounting for about 60 percent of sales as of Iridium’s most recent quarter, data services, also known as machine-to-machine or M2M, are growing at a nice clip. The number of M2M subscribers surged year over year to 146,000 from 89,000 at an average revenue per user of about $22.

On the news, Iridium shares — the company went public in 2009 after being acquired by an investment company — rose by 25 cents, or more than 3 percent, to $7.50 a share, though they’re still down from where they were at the start of the year.


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