Iridium celebrates latest satellite launch as part of major tech upgrade in space

The Aireon system is hosted on the Iridium Next satellite constellation, which is scheduled for completion by the end of the year. (Aireon)

As newer satellite ventures are getting underway, an old standby—Iridium Communications—just celebrated the successful launch of the fifth set of 10 Iridium Next satellites into orbit.

The launch on Friday was conducted by SpaceX, which just a day before received FCC approval for its own satellite system, albeit one that uses far more satellites—4,425 to be precise. SpaceX designed its system with the primary purpose of providing broadband service directly to end users, particularly individual households and small businesses.

That’s not the same base that Iridium is targeting. Iridium says its low-earth orbit constellation sets it apart, leading to smaller antennas, lower latency and a better customer experience. Its system is engineered for adaptable two-way communications, and its L-band/VHF spectrum is less prone to rain fade than K-band.

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In fact, Iridium CEO Matt Desch said the company does not intend to compete with satellite companies that use K-band spectrum to primarily offer alternatives to cable or fiber, or those talking about providing 5G from space. He considers the cable/fiber alternatives to basically be commodity services. There are those satellite companies that want to serve the passengers in the back of the plane, and then there’s Iridium, which is focused on providing services upfront for the cockpit.

The company says it’s undergoing one of the largest technology upgrades ever completed in space. When finished later this year, the $3 billion next-generation satellite network will consist of 75 Iridium Next satellites in orbit; it now has 50. Iridium’s Next system will provide global coverage for its Certus L-band broadband service and support Aireon’s aircraft surveillance and tracking—supporting real-time flight tracking for better efficiencies for airlines looking to cut fuel costs and plan more effective routes.

Last week, Iridium also announced a major milestone as it surpassed 1 million active subscribers, fueled in large part by growth in IoT. More than half of the subscribers on the Iridium network are IoT devices, doing everything from tracking endangered species to monitoring power lines and controlling shipping container temperature levels. Companies like Caterpillar use it to keep track of assets like heavy equipment.

Iridium sees its future growth in the IoT, where it has established itself as the satellite network of choice to keep “things” connected beyond the limits of cellular coverage. Desch said the company is happy to serve its niche and generally isn’t competing for the same subscribers that cellular operators serve. “We’re not looking for billions of customers,” he said.

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