Historic Blunders

14th October 2005 at 01:00
You know the problem. Roaming alone on some far-flung beach, you feel a sudden urge to chat. But wouldn't you just know it? Your mobile has no signal. Why? Because it is a mere cell-phone, and works only in the vicinity of one of those nasty base stations that everyone hates so much.

If only you had bought a satellite phone - then you could address the world from the wilderness and know the true meaning of freedom.

Back in the 1980s, that is precisely what telecoms strategists assumed we would all want to do. Which is why they dreamed up the Iridium project.

Technically, it was brilliant. A constellation of satellites (77 were originally planned, matching the atomic number of the element iridium) would juggle phone signals in space, ensuring that every inch of Earth's surface was covered. The man behind Apple's automated computer factory was hired to design a plant to churn out satellites for only $5 million each.

In November 1998, the Iridium service was launched. Investors rubbed their hands with glee. Just as the Iridium satellites were among the brightest objects in the night sky, so did Iridium stocks sparkle in the Wall Street firmament. But, less than a year later, financial star-gazers came down to earth with a wallop as the company, backed to the tune of $5 billion by electronics giant Motorola, filed for bankruptcy with astronomical debts.

Plans to crash the satellites out of orbit were only aborted when, at the last minute, a group of investors bagged all the kit for just $25 million.

But although this deal means that the system still operates, it is chiefly used by military and relief agency personnel. High costs, bulky handsets and poor indoor reception are cited as reasons why Iridium never really took off. That and the fact that, with cell-phone providers offering roaming deals, nobody needs a satellite phone anyway. Except, of course, when they find themselves cut off from the world with something important to say. Then how on earth are they supposed to say it?

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