February 11th, Iridium Satellite LLC launched five new satellites and plans to launch two more soon. They will act as back-ups for the current 66 in orbit if one should go tumbling or break down. Now, the company needs 60,000 users to cover costs which - who knows - may be possible at the bargain basement rate of $1.50 a minute, as compared with the $7 per minute charge of former times. All three satellite telecommunication companies - Iridium, Global Star and ICO went bankrupt, but Iridium was the first one up and the first big one in the news to go down.
Ilana Halperin and Ewen Chardronnet are both members of the second crew at the Makrolab, which was located on the Atholl Estate in Scotland in summer of 2002. They discovered Iridium was a mutual interest and took some time to discuss the past and current state of the satellite constellation while on site at the silver pod.
Ilana: Last Spring I was in Donostia/ San Sebastian. The entire town is based around a beach called La Concha. It is shaped like a conch shell. In the middle of the beach there are unexpected rocks, strata like the torn pages of a book smashed together at a vertical angle. I asked around and found out there are more rocks like them a few towns away in Zumaia, a place known for its rough wave surfing beach.
People kept telling me I had to go Zumaia asap because, in addition to being amazing strata - the rocks are infamous. One layer has a really high Iridium content, which is a trace element from when a meteorite hits the surface of the earth. This particular layer is famous because the high quantity of Iridium, and the age of the layer correlate with the time of the extinction of the dinosaurs. This layer is linked to the source of The Great Dying, a theory developed by Walter Alvarez and his son Luis in the 1980s, which suggests that THIS layer may prove a massive meteorite may have hit the planet causing the end of the dinosaurs. Its a site of geological pilgrimage - there are only afew places in the world where you can see this particular Iridium layer with the naked eye. Ive been to two of them so far - in Basque country and in Stvens Klint, near Great Heretic, in Denmark. I still need to get to Gubbio.
I was trying to find out as much as I could about the layer. Instead, I kept coming up with information about Iridium Satellites - so called because Motorola thought they would need 77 satellites for worldwide satellite communication coverage enabling you to speak on a cell phone on a glacier, in the middle of the desert or from the middle of a war at any time. 77 is the number on the periodic table for Iridium. Iridium is more precious than Platinum. The name means rainbow. It was perfect. Turns out they only needed 66, which is a very unsexy element on the table - name means hard to get at. They decided to stick with Iridium. I started working with an astrophysicist in Donostia who said she was tired of looking at numbers and wanted to look at the sky again. We spent alot of time tracking the Iridium Constellation (see: http://www.heavens-above.com) and Ive just kept going since then.
Ewen: Initially, I was intrigued in 1998 by these huge satellite constellations that they were going to send into space - first Iridium, then ICO then Global Star - a huge industry starting up. How could all these companies could be so confident that they could send such a large number of satellites - 66 for Iridium alone - all in one year? Like Global Star was supposed to be second up - but they crashed a rocket with a lot of satellites on it, which delayed their time scale. It was the first time they started to call something a satellite constellation - a big business with a big name. Seemed to be an easy business sending hundreds of satellites up into the sky at once. Also, because this phone was supposed to be for the high level business man - the businaucrat - huge petrol platforms were linked in on the deal too. Iridium said, once they were operational, they only had three thousand customers (including 800 from the Pentagon)- but they needed 500,000 to cover costs, so they were all doing everything they could to get more business.
In June 1999, the Kosovo war was a good opportunity to promote Iridium phones. Not only for the reason that the Nato army could use them in operations, that never happened before - using this kind of technology in and around war zones, as there is often no wired or cellular phone service and the only way to call is by satellite - but also because they could promote Iridium for humanitarian reasons. Aide groups such as the Red Cross used Iridium phones. Every TV network and many major newspapers had at least one Iridium phone in the region. "It gives us the opportunity to let more people see it being used," said Iridium's former CEO. Motorola started - that was an emergency action for a failing business too - to send Iridium phones into the refugees camps. First they sent three people with 12 phones to refugee camps in Macedonia, where they let refugees make free calls. Some refugees waited in line 10 hours to call their family. Those scenes gave Iridium much of its television exposure. Then Iridium sent 50 more phones to refugee sites. Journalists and TVs were there and chose this as a good representation of the situation in the camps : pictures of refugees dealing with new occidental technologies to reach their family - and also Motorola running for international coverage. The total cost of the program was $250,000.
Ilana: Which is funny - because it was so obviously a communication technology for - as you say - the businaucrat - not for use by the general public - and certainly not for use by people who would not normally have access to that kind of technology.
Ewen: Then two months after all that - August 1999 - the Iridium division of Motorola went bankrupt - so all the effort was for nothing more than a photo spread in a newspaper.
Ilana: So in part the whole thing was like setting a root system to take hold of future contracts after the war.
Ewen: Yes, after the war in Kosovo, Motorola installed pods for mobile phones and talked about starting to sell them with out any agreements or contracts - even before the elections for a new government. Mobile phone = symbol for free market that conquers a new territory - communication from anywhere, anytime, easy to install. Kosovo was also a step to Serbia - first Kosovo - then cross the border into a new and bigger market - like - we have to be there or someone else will come first. The UN said to Motorola - wait - hold up - you dont have a contract, permission, anything. Eventually the UN made a call for proposals and went with another company - Alcatel, which was part of Global Star - for the first pods. Motorola had to wait.
Ilana: Yeah - and in the summer 1999 when Iridium went bankrupt, the CEO of the Iridium Satellite division of Motorola announced they were going to let the entire satellite constellation incinerate into the atmosphere unless someone bought them out immediately. The night they announced this - two Icelandic adventure explorers were on their way to the North Pole. They were going to be the first people from Iceland to get there. They brought an Iridium headset with them as their only form of communication, so the whole country was obsessed with the satellites because their boys were out there in the expanse trying to call home. Eventually, one of them broke his arm and couldnt go on, and one made it to the Pole. Apparently, their phone was fine.
Ewen: NASA said they needed to protect the Iridium Satellite Constellation - or somehow avoid the inevitable incineration because there is a chance of 1 in 279 that an Iridium Satellite falling into the atmosphere could kill somebody. They were concerned that there would be some kind of Iridium paranoia epidemic - and - big shock - the U.S. Department of Defense awarded the company a seventy-two million dollar contract for unlimited use of its global satellite based secure telephone network.
In June, 2000 I was invited to the worldinformation.org exhibition in Brussels for a music performance - it was a AAA Supersonic Adventures. In the exhibition they were presenting a model of the Iridium satellite alongside the mobile phone. This was a good illustration of how an obsolete technology can create disorder in the balance of technology and power. The service, which was originally envisaged in the late 1980s as an essential tool for globe-trotting executives, did not launch until 1998, by which time much cheaper, terrestrial mobiles provided near universal coverage. Obsolete technologies can create a dysfunctionality within the balance of technology and power in capitalist systems. For example - simultaneously -the U.S. military makes a huge contract with Iridium and in Chechnya the Chechnyan Liberation Army could buy Iridium headsets on the black market - and then use them in the Guerilla. Things do not usually happen like this in military information technologies. In an emergency situation - Iridium signed contracts with anyone - and then were surprised when the technology came back - but in unexpected places. Just like with surveillance technologies in the 60s.
Ilana: There is a very strange double edge to Iridium - like that the two main users of Iridium headsets are The U.S. Department of Defense and, though way less in proportion to the military!!! adventure explorers on route to the North Pole. There is this real movement of poetic intrigue with the Iridium satellite constellation - via the cult of photographing Iridium Flares, etc. - site after site of artificial falling stars...one moment of catastrophe that may or may not have happened way back in geologic time - a massive meteorite which could have hit the earth causing mass destruction, re-enacting itself every night with simulation trails in the sky being recorded by amateur astronomers all over the world.
Ewen: Also, this happened during the year 2000, and you can find some conspiracy web sites, mixing Y2K, bug 2000, Iridium bought by Ministry of Defense, Echelon, etc. Something for the Big Control of Planet Earth by the Ghost Government...
Ilana: On September 11th, a plane carrying 600 Iridium phones was on route to Florida. The towers were hit, all land and mobile lines went down in New York. Then, the plane turned around mid-air to deliver the phones to the rescue site. According to recent reports, Iridium said they could See a boost in sales as companies re-visit their disaster plans. They have also said, Disasters are perfect examples of pockets of need...But it will still be a significant challenge to find these little pockets of need around the world. They are now in the process of trying to negotiate contracts with different airlines to get Iridium systems installed into airplane cockpits - so that in the event of a terrorist attack air traffic control will be able to follow everything that happens on the plane, even if other forms of communication are cut.
Ewen: And, two weeks after the attack, a Bulgarian business man, known under the name "Ivan Ivanov", declared that he has been approached by Osama Bin Laden and his lieutenants to buy some old combustible from the Bulgarian atomic central of Kozlodoui - with a $200,000 commission that he refused - also he said that he had been working for more than one year in a sub-division of the Binladin Contracting Group. He said that "This company has been engaged in the global communication system Iridium, that bankrupt, and that dispose of subtancial information about American norms (of communication) that constitutes an element of national security" (AFP). So again, Iridium emerges in unexpected situations. A revolution in the military affairs.
Ilana: On recent adventure missions - Dominick Arduin, the first woman to ski alone to the Magnetic North Pole brought an Iridium phone with her. Dave Mill, the man from Perthshire who was planning to be the first man to walk alone unaided to the North Pole, used an O2 phone. His story was really crazy! He was trapped on drift ice and the full moon was a week away - which meant the gravitational pull up there would turn his ice floe into a series of impenetrable ice mountains. So, he used his sledge to carve out a landing patch, took a picture of it with his digital camera and e-mailed the photo on his cell phone to a rescue team in Canada, who came and got him off the ice! In normal life, he lives near the Makrolab.
We only use as a pay-as-you-go phone here at Makro HQ - so far no one from Iridium has offered us unlimited air time.
photo: Ilana Halperin 'Iridium number 23'