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Opinion: So how do you order Iridium satellite service?

February 24, 1999
Web posted at: 10:01 p.m. EST (0301 GMT)

by David Rohde

Network World Fusion

(IDG) -- If you have the budget for it, there's a new way to travel the world and stay in touch wherever you are. Called Iridium, it's the first of several planned constellations of low-earth orbit satellites that bounce calls off one another until they find the party you're calling.

The beauty of Iridium is that a single phone handset or pager works everywhere. Interested? Good luck getting the service.

Iridium had some problems getting underway, even after it had launched all 66 of its satellites. It missed its planned Sept. 23, 1998, start date due to software glitches in its Earth switching stations and some delays in handset manufacturing. But it finally began commercial service, or so it claims, on Nov. 1, 1998.

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I tested out Iridium's ordering system when Network World was examining questions about Iridium's start date. I went to Iridium's Web site and entered my name as a prospect for the service. Shortly thereafter, I received an e-mail, date-stamped Sept. 4, 1998, confirming my place on the prospect list. "An Iridium representative will contact you shortly regarding your interest," the message said.

I later received a package in the mail. It described Iridium's voice and paging services and pictured the devices, with no prices but plenty of flowery language. An accompanying letter welcomed me as a prospect. "An Iridium representative will contact you shortly regarding your interest,"the letter said.

I never heard back from them.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the Web site again and found a new, more complex qualifying form. I tried the system several times, but it kept kicking me out, claiming I had not filled in all the mandatory fields marked by an asterisk. But I had - I swear. I called Iridium's public relations representative. She suggested calling 1-888IRIDIUM to find a distributor.

The phone representative asked me all the qualifying questions again, then read me the names of seven distributors I'd never heard of. I said I thought Sprint PCS was an Iridium distributor (they announced they were last month). He transferred me to Sprint. I stayed on hold for several minutes, then the Iridium representative came back and said, "At the moment Sprint PCS is experiencing a high call volume." He transferred me to another distributor. Same thing.

He came back on the line, and I asked what the service costs. He said the dual-mode handset costs $3,795, and the service providers licensed by Iridium charge between $2 to $7 per minute.

Look, the stakes are pretty high here. For the fourth quarter, Iridium reported revenue of $186,000 and a loss of $440 million.

There's a message here for the upcoming satellite systems providers: You might want to turn off your hype machines until you make darn sure you're ready to take the orders.

David Rohde is a senior editor for Network World.

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