Planes, trains and satellites

Now that Iridium has finished launching its $3 billion constellation of next-generation communications satellites, the Virginia company’s business partners are shifting from initial sales and beta testing to full-scale, revenue-generating services.

Consider Network Innovations, the Calgary, Alberta-based company that’s one of the 30 or so around the world that have agreed to sell Iridium Certus, the broadband internet service that lies at the heart of Iridium’s business plan for its Iridium NEXT satellites.

The Calgary company says it is feeling fresh demand since Iridium announced the official rollout of Certus on Jan. 16, just a few days after a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off on Jan. 11 with the final tranche of 10 satellites, each about the size and weight of a Mini Cooper. All 66 Iridium NEXT satellites (and nine spares) are now in orbit with crosslink antennas that will route voice communications and high-speed data from satellite to satellite and to mobile customers on land, ships or aircraft.

Network Innovations had tested Iridium Certus with Rocky Mountaineer, a luxury train service with routes in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and Western Canada. The final tranche of satellites should achieve the data transfer speeds that train passengers require. Iridium expects the satellites in this last tranche to begin carrying communications in February.

If all goes as planned, train passengers will for the first time have “crystal clear” phone calls and high-speed internet links, says Eric Verheylewegen, executive vice president for Network Innovations. Cellular service for the passengers has been spotty due to the mountainous terrain, and the mountains ruled out relying on geostationary communications satellites that orbit over the equator. The company elected to wait for Iridium Certus, believing that it will deliver the desired coverage and speed.

Iridium’s dozens of satellites will make “a big difference for clients who operate at high latitudes or in areas where a clear view to the equator is not always guaranteed,” says Verheylewegen. “Certus is not the first mobile broadband satellite system but it is the only one that is truly global.”

With the official start of the Iridium Certus service, “we are indeed getting more interest from clients who know the service is fully up and running,” he adds.

The innovations aren’t just on the satellite. The antenna terminals that access the network are smaller than Iridium’s older terminals. Versions are manufactured by Cobham, Thales, Collins Aerospace, L3, Gogo and Satcom Direct. They will provide high-speed communications of up to 700 kilobits per second with the next firmware update. Also, they have no moving parts, and that’s important to Rocky Mountaineer “because the vibration on trains is incredible,” Verheylewegen says.

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Planes, trains and satellites