Arthur C. Clarke (1917 – 2008) is generally credited with being the father of satellite communications. Mr. Clarke, who helped the British develop radar assisted landing guidance in World War II, and author of 2001 A Space Odyssey, did come up with the idea of utilizing geo-stationary satellites for communications. The idea of geo-stationery satellites, orbiting in a fixed position 23,236 miles above the Earth, was actually presented by Herman Potocnik in 1928. You don’t need to remember that unless you want a good trivia question for Saturday night. Another bit of trivia that you can use for the double-or-nothing round is that the first geo-synchronous satellite was called Syncom-3 and was launched in 1964.

Mobile satellite communications got its first real foothold in 1964 when Inmarsat was founded in London. At that time, Inmarsat was an international organization with a primary goal of providing communications in support of safety of life at sea. Before Inmarsat, ships at sea communicated via high and low frequency radios. Well into the 60’s the primary mode of communications from a vessel were radio telegraphy (dots and dashes) which were sent from the radio operator to a coastal land station. There, a trained operator listened for vessels to call, recorded their messages by hand, typed them on a typewriter (with little arms and keys) and sent them via Western Union or mail. The first Inmarsat terminals that were installed on vessels cost about $50,000 each and the cost of airtime for voice calls was $10.00 per minute. Over the years, Inmarsat has launched several generations of geo-stationary satellites. As the power of these satellites and the use of IP data services increased, the cost of marine terminals dropped as low as $5,000 with voice calls right on par with cellular roaming at around $1.00 per minute. Modern Inmarsat terminals also support high speed data connections with the user paying by the megabyte for the data they send.

Inmarsat has always been the stable, slow growing, but reliable satellite communications solution. However, the real excitement came when Iridium, Globalstar, Thuraya, and most recently Inmarsat began offering mobile satellite services through handheld phones. The handheld market really started in 1998 when Iridium began service. More bar room trivia: Iridium originally planned to utilize 77 low-earth-orbiting satellites in its constellation. Iridium has the atomic number 77, and hence Iridium was named. The Company actually ended up with 66 satellites in its constellation, but decided not to change its name to Dysprosium. The first Iridium service was quite complicated, with calls being routed from satellite to satellite and then down to a land earth station near the call destination. Charging for these calls was equally complex and frustrating, with some calls costing $2.50 to $3.50 per minute. In 1999, Iridium filed for bankruptcy, leaving a substantial customer base without service.

While Iridium was going through their initial start-up, a joint venture between Loral and Qualcomm called Globalstar was getting underway. Founded in 1991, Globalstar planned to enter service in 1998. They did complete the launch of their first batch of satellites in early 1998. However, in September, they suffered a launch failure by the Russian Space Agency and 12 satellites were destroyrd. Globalstar started commercial service in December 1999, on the heels of Iridium’s bankruptcy, and completed the deployment of their 48 satellite constellation in February of 2000. Utilizing CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) technology developed by Qualcomm, Globalstar offered significantly better voice quality and data speeds than Iridium and many other cellular operators. There subscriber base grew rapidly, and many resellers offered “trade-in” specials to disgruntled Iridium users.

To keep everything in perspective with regard to time, in 2001 a regional satellite operator based in the United Arab Emirates launched Thuraya service utilizing a geo-stationary satellite built by Hughes aircraft. The company has grown quietly, without the drama of Globalstar and Iridium, and has sold more than 500,000 handheld and small data terminals. Their area of operation includes: Europe, parts of Africa, The Middle East, and parts of Asia.

Also in 2001 Iridium restarted service with a much more simplified approach. Calls went from the handset, up to the satellite, were transferred from satellite to satellite then down to one land earth station in Arizona, where the call was delivered via normal land-line connection. Not as high tech as the original operation, but it worked and pricing stabilized in the $1.50 per minute range. One of the significant advantages of Iridium is that their satellites are polar orbiting, so users have coverage everywhere on earth (as long as you are outside and can see the sky) including the poles. Because they use one Land Earth Station, and can monitor calls on a real-time basis, Iridium also has the significant advantage of offering prepaid airtime service. So if you are planning a trip to The North Pole or Polar Canada, you do not need to read any further, just contact Satellite Phone Solutions and rent an Iridium phone for your trip.

With Iridium back in service, it was now time for Globalstar to go bankrupt in 2002. In 2004, Globalstar was brought out of bankruptcy with Thermo Partners as the Primary Owner. However, between 2005 and 2007, Globalstar began suffering from failure of the portion of their satellites that provides voice service (S-Band). The portion of the satellites that provides data services was not affected. In 2007, Globalstar launched its SPOT tracking service, which has proven very popular, and helped keep Globalstar afloat as they moved forward with their plans to launch new second generation satellites.

In 2010, Inmarsat joined the handheld satellite market with its sleek-looking, but quite rugged, Inmarsat IsatPhone Pro. With hardware priced between Iridium and Globalstar, IsatPhone Pro service is Global except for the polar regions. Inmarsat recently announced that they would begin offering prepaid service on September 1, 2012.

At this time, Globalstar is nearing completion of the launch and deployment of its second generation satellites. It has a reported customer base of 350,000 and SPS sees the potential for strong growth. SPS expects Globalstar service to be at 100% during the first quarter of 2013. Globalstar service has gotten so good over the last two months, that most users do not bother to use the call times tool software anymore. Iridium’s original constellation of 66 satellites is nearing the end of its projected life. Service issues if any, are small, and Iridium, which boasts a customer base of more than 525,000 billable customers, is moving forward with plans to launch 66 new satellites between 2015-2017 called Iridium NEXT. While Globalstar certainly provides the best value proposition for customers in North America, Globalstar customers will have to be patient as Globalstar expands its revitalized service beyond North America following the completion of its launch program late in 2012. Iridium continues to offer reliable service and is confident that their original constellation will see them through to 2017. While most of Inmarsat’s focus remains marine in nature, their IsatPhone Pro works well, is fairly priced, and Inmarsat does not have any milestones to meet to deliver reliable handheld service for many years to come.

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