Most of us remember Iridium as the Motorola-backed, multi-billion dollar commercial satellite phone flop. The expensive, bulky phones, the $2 per minute airtime charge, and the inability to use the phone inside buildings doomed the project, which came online when the cell phone market was taking off. Despite all these problems, the US military found the low-bandwidth satellites and phones very useful in remote areas. So the Pentagon backed an effort for the constellation to be acquired by investors at a fraction of the original $5 billion development cost, and became the revived satellite company’s largest customer.
Iridium Communications Inc. has been steadily picking up customers beyond the Pentagon. They now have almost 360,000 subscribers, and in 2007, they began planing a second-generation satellite constellation called Iridium NEXT. With launches expected to begin in 2015, Iridium NEXT will offer higher data speeds, flexible bandwidth allocation, and IP-based routing. In the meantime, militaries have found innovative ways to use Iridium’s services, making Iridium NEXT a privately-held but significant space resource for future military operations.