Iridium’s time sequencing solution may be a player in 5G to augment GPS

Iridium user (Iridium)
Iridium provided a critical lifeline for first responders when hurricanes wreaked destruction on so many communities. (Iridium)

Iridium Communications doesn’t discuss 5G all that much, but its time sequencing solution could be of interest to mobile carriers that rely on the GPS clock in urban canyons, where GPS doesn’t perform well inside buildings.

“We right now are a backup to IoT, to LTE,” said Iridium CFO Thomas Fitzpatrick during the Wells Fargo 2017 Media & Telecom Conference in New York. “We’ll be the same thing with 5G.”

Last year, Iridium officially launched its Satellite Time and Location (STL) technology, enabling end users to access accurate navigation and timing anywhere on the planet, even indoors. The company says the unique architecture of its 66-low-earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation makes uniquely capable of this offering.

“The GPS clock is used for timing for traffic to be routed in telephony among the cellular providers and an application of 5G in microcells in buildings,” Fitzpatrick said. “They use the GPS clock for time sequencing and in urban canyons like this, the GPS signal doesn’t get into the building, so what you need to do is put an antenna on the roof and run cable” and the cellular providers don’t like that very much.

Iridium has been working with Satelles to provide technology that would address the problem. Due to STL's signal strength, it can help make GPS systems more difficult to "spoof," which has been a growing problem n the GPS world.

The solution transmits its signals through Iridium's satellite constellation to deliver a unique code to each position on the ground that can be independently authenticated, proving that a device is located in a specific place in the world, thereby enabling applications to be "location aware," and allowing operation or access only if the user is in the location expected.

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An earlier iteration of Iridium was the subject of great speculation in the mid- to late 1990s before it went into bankruptcy. It eventually emerged to start a new life. Besides serving maritime and aviation industries, it’s now seeing growth in IoT and is competing with the likes of Inmarsat in that and other areas. In IoT, Iridium has attracted the likes of Caterpillar and other heavy equipment OEMs. In fact, its M2M business grew 20% in the third quarter, adding 25,000 subscribers to its commercial M2M business.

In the company’s third-quarter earnings conference call in late October, CEO Matt Desch, a former Nortel Networks and Telcordia executive, said that the company saw a pronounced spike in network usage and a sharp increase in equipment sales and activations in areas affected by hurricanes, including Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean.

In Puerto Rico alone, Iridium saw more than 4,600 unique Iridium phones active with peak usage running at several hundred times normal levels, and that figure didn’t include U.S. Department of Defense activity.

Meanwhile, Iridium continues the expansion of its Next constellation. The fourth Iridium Next launch has been targeted by SpaceX for launch on Dec. 22 from Vandenberg Air Force Base. That launch signifies the mid-way point of the Iridium Next launch program and will deliver another 10 satellites to orbit, bringing the total number deployed to 40.