Taking global telecommunications a giant step forward, Motorola Inc. is expected to unveil plans today for a $2-billion network of orbiting satellites to provide cellular telephone service to remote stretches of the planet.
The new system, named Iridium, will rely on 77 small, low-orbiting satellites to send cellular radio signals from one caller's handset to another's, without the need for switching towers and relay stations on which current cellular telephone service is based--or poles and wires on which traditional phone service is based.
The Motorola network, projected for full operation by 1996, is designed to serve areas now without state-of-the-art telephone service--the primary markets are Third World nations and Eastern Europe--and is expected to connect with traditional land-line service of all types already available in industrialized nations.
"The network is designed to fill in the gaps of the worldwide telecommunications system," said Durrell Hillis, general manager of Motorola's satellite communications operations. "When you get to the end of the traditional service area, your call just gets handed up to the 'bird' orbiting the Earth." The system will be able to handle both voice and computer data.
The new network, which generated widespread interest long before its official unveiling this morning at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, promises to deliver a service that experts have long predicted would become a reality before the end of the century: instantaneous communication and access to data banks, friends, family and fax machines from anywhere on the globe.
"This is the future," says Steve Sazeguri, a telecommunications analyst with Dataquest, a Silicon Valley technology marketing research firm.
The experts call it "personal communication," and they predict that it will expand the worldwide cellular market from about 7 million subscribers currently to 100 million by the year 2000.
Eventually, they say, nearly everyone will carry some sort of personal telephone, either on the wrist, in pockets or purses, or in a computer, that will allow individuals to make and receive calls wherever they are. Such personal phones already exist. Last year Motorola, already the world's largest supplier of cellular telephones, introduced a pocket-sized model weighing just 10 ounces.
Schaumburg, Ill.-based Motorola has also teamed with International Business Machines to start a radio network to connect specially equipped personal computers. And McCaw Cellular Communications, the nation's largest cellular service, has launched an ambitious land-based cellular communications network that will give cellular customers in North America access to radio waves almost anywhere on the continent.
The satellite cellular network, analysts say, is just one more step down the same path.
In the new telecommunications world, everyone would have a personalized telephone number, much like a Social Security number, that would travel with individuals wherever they were. Callers using the system would not need to know the location of the person being called and would not need to rely upon a geographically based telephone code. Callers would simply dial the phone number of the person they wished to reach.
Iridium or any similar system would transmit calls to telephones the same size as hand-held cellular phones, equipped with small radio antennae modulated to pick up the frequency emitted by the satellite.
With traditional cellular service, land-based radio towers transmit calls in a limited area known as a cell, and transfer calls from tower to tower as users move--usually in their cars--from cell to cell.
Iridium--the name is based on the chemical element with 77 electrons orbiting around its nucleus--works on the same principle, except a cell would cover hundreds of square miles. As the user changes cells, the call is transferred from one satellite to another.
Motorola officials said the satellite system would be best suited to providing service in remote areas because each of the satellite service areas would be able to handle a maximum of about 10,000 telephone calls at once, a fraction of the number handled by traditional land-based cellular relay stations. For that reason, Motorola will market the system in countries with vast undeveloped stretches or relatively primitive telephone systems rather than in dense urban areas that are more economically served by existing land-based cellular networks.
Because large high-flying satellites cannot transmit to anything as small as a signal from a hand-held radio transmitter, Motorola plans a network of low-orbit mini-satellites, each about three feet in diameter and orbiting Earth at a height of 413 nautical miles. With 77 satellites, each covering an area about 400 miles in diameter, every point on the earth's surface is in continuous sight of one of the transmitters.
Hillis said Motorola hopes to form a consortium with at least four or five partners to manufacture the satellites and operate the network. He said the company has agreements with International Maritime Satellite Organization (Inmarsat) in London, American Mobile Satellite Corp. of Washington and Telesat Mobile Inc. of Canada to explore the potential of the network.
Inmarsat, based in London, is a cooperative of 59 member nations that provide communications for ships and aircraft.
Hillis said Motorola has also talked to industry leaders in Australia, Japan, Hong Kong and Britain about the possibility of participating in the venture.