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DOWN TO EARTH : New Generation of Low-Orbiting Communications Satellites Has Lofty Ambitions


WASHINGTON — For decades, only space scientists seemed interested in satellites. But this winter, after years of being hamstrung by regulatory and financial obstacles, some of the biggest names in communications will begin launching payloads into orbit to provide voice, data, paging and fax services for customers around the globe.

The new satellite ventures have been encouraged by the worldwide deregulation of the communications industry and heartened by the success of digital television, which has attracted 4 million subscribers to video programming broadcast via satellite.

But the coming generation of satellites is designed to serve much greater ambitions--to leapfrog telephones and TV and become the most pervasive medium of communications yet.

Supporters of so-called low-Earth-orbiting satellites, or LEOs, envision an omnipresent celestial network allowing people in even the most remote regions of the planet to keep in touch via hand-held receivers no larger than cellular phones.

Already some global communications satellite systems are up and running. Two satellites operated by Dulles, Va.-based Orbcomm Global now provide two-way paging and other services in North America for $15 a month.

Orbcomm's business rests on a significant technological breakthrough: its development of a suitcase-size, 95-pound satellite that could be launched for about one-twentieth the cost of a conventional $500-million, 5,000-pound satellite.

To be truly serviceable, however, an extraterrestrial global communications network will have to resemble Orbcomm on a much larger scale. Experts say construction of such a system could wind up being one of the most costly and technically challenging ventures in communications history.

Satellite communications involve a complex and costly mix of components located on Earth as well as in space.

The biggest payloads, gigantic geostationary satellites twice the size of dump trucks and weighing as much as 3 tons each, orbit 25,700 miles above Earth. Because that distance renders their signals relatively weak, they require huge Earth-based dishes or powerful and heavy handsets.

The newly developed low-Earth-orbiting satellites offer several advantages over their big cousins. For one thing, they orbit at 500 miles to 1,500 miles above Earth, allowing them to transmit signals without the troublesome half-second delay characteristic of geosynchronous satellites.

Because they are lighter and are perched on shallower orbits, they are cheaper to launch.

Signals relayed by the LEOs remain stronger thanks to the shorter distances, so they are compatible with handsets the size of today's cellular phones. Unlike cellular systems, however, which restrict users to continental or regional networks, the new satellite systems can operate worldwide, allowing customers to use one phone number and one handset wherever they go.

There are some downsides. The wandering LEOs' orbits mean it takes several satellites working together to ensure full-time coverage of any region. Furthermore, the Earth's gravity pulls the smaller LEOs out of orbit after only about five years aloft, compared with the roughly 12 years geostationary satellites can stay in place.

Nevertheless, the units have turned satellite communications into one of telecom's hottest fields.

More than a dozen groups--ranging from the ambitious 66-satellite Iridium project, backed by chip maker Motorola Inc. and 16 others, to the regionally focused Asia Pacific Mobile Telecommunications--are planning to spend about $20 billion over the next decade to launch roughly 1,200 artificial moons. Orbcomm alone plans to add 26 satellites to its current two by the end of 1997. The projected cost is $350 million.

What drives this investment are statistics showing that more than half the world's population has never made a telephone call--suggesting that the potential for growth is enormous if service can be extended to remote villages and neighborhoods. There are only about 800 million phones serving a global population of about 6 billion people, estimates Gregory E. Staples, editor of TeleGeography, a Washington publication that tracks worldwide telephone use.

Although the financial return from serving isolated communities may be small, industry visionaries have their eyes on growing Third World countries that are so vast that serving them via conventional land lines is costly and impractical.

"The telephone penetration in countries like Brazil, China and India is minuscule compared to the potential [telephone] capacity offered by satellites," said Bernard L. Schwartz, chairman of San Jose-based Globalstar Telecommunications Ltd. "The worldwide demand is huge. We are poised . . . to launch a new service that will bring remote parts of the globe onto the information highway."

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