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News feature: Antarcticans phone home

South Pole is still within our reach

For those of you who don't remember Iridium, its history (barring the past 12 months) has been an impressive disaster.

Iridium was launched in 1992 and is a low Earth orbiting system. Specifically, there are 66 satellites orbiting the Earth at 780km which provide voice/data coverage at any given time to anyone anywhere on the planet.

Iridium was initially backed by Motorola to the tune of more than £3bn, but after all the marketing hoopla and still no customers — largely because it found too few people willing to pay high prices, as much as nearly £8 per minute, for global phone service as well as using clunky satellite phones — the satellite company started nose-diving quickly and soon was out of pocket.

But a new incarnation emerged from the ashes of bankruptcy in late 2000. Investors bought Iridium's assets for a miserly £17.6m in December 2001, then renamed the company Iridium Satellite.

Because of the bankruptcy filing the court discharged the debts of the original company, leaving the reborn satellite communication business free from past debt payments and back delivering services to global customers.

Much of Iridium's survival is hinged on a big contract with the US Defense Information Systems Agency.

But down under, in fact way down under, the AAD (Australian Antarctic Division) is also finding a use for the technology — namely, Iridium satellite phones are used by AAD field parties.

Peter Yates, telecommunications manager at the AAD's Tasmanian office, says the AAD has several ways of communicating, whether it be from ships or AAD's Kingston base, south of Hobart, with field workers based on Australia's four permanent research stations — Mawson, Davis and Casey on the Antarctic mainland, and Macquarie Island in the subantarctic.

One way is through Anaresat, which uses two Intelsat geostationary satellites to provide telecommunication links between Australia and AAD-owned satellites at each of the four polar stations. Another is the Inmarsat system. The third is Iridium.

"It currently serves as a backup to other communications. It is used as a minor part of our communications," said Yates. "But we will be using Iridium a lot more as time goes by. We find it very useful."

Presently Inmarsat is quite a lot cheaper to use than the £1 per minute charged by Iridium, and delivers information a lot faster, at 64Kbps (kilobits per second). Iridium, although having bigger range, is a lot slower at some 2.4Kbps and thus primarily used for voice transmission. Yates said it could be used for data, but was quite slow.

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