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Who would have thought the Iridium satellite service could be described as "very useful"?

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 780 km which provides voice/data coverage at any given time to anyone anywhere on the earth Iridium was initially backed by Motorola to the tune of $US4.4 billion but after all the marketing hoopla, and no customers -- largely because it found too few people willing to pay high prices (as much as $11 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.

However, a new incarnation emerged from the ashes of bankruptcy in late 2000. Investors bought Iridium's assets for a miserly $US25 million in December, then renamed the company Iridium Satellite Corp. 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. However, down under, in fact way down under, the Australian Antarctic Division is also finding a use for the technology. Namely, Iridium satellite phones are used by AAD field parties to provide voice and data communications.

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 satellite earth stations at each of the four polar stations. Another is a satellite technology called Inmarsat. The third is Iridium. "It currently serves as a back-up 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 ANARESAT is quite a lot cheaper to use than the $US1.50 per minute charged by Iridium. However, the portability of Iridium makes it very useful for field operations away from the four main stations. It can be used for data transfers, but at 2400 baud it is slow and error prone, thus it will primarily be used for voice transmission. "Inmarsat B, which delivers information a lot faster and reliably at 64Kbps, will still be used for large data transfers from our ships and remote field parties."

Additional reporting by George A. Chidi Jr.

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