Toys maketh the man

It could have been so pretty - we could all have bought popcorn and sat outside watching the fireworks as the entire Iridium network was brought to a crashing halt. Oh the humanity!

It could have been so pretty — we could all have bought popcorn and sat outside watching the fireworks as the entire Iridium network was brought to a crashing halt. Oh the humanity!

Too expensive to keep in orbit after the company collapsed, the dozens and dozens of satellites that make up the network were to have been splashed into the world’s oceans. Rescue packages failed, negotiations broke down. It looked like the only folk who would be cheered by the enormous amount of money to be ditched in the depths were the astronomers who were peeved because the satellites got in the way.

Thanks to the US military, which has paid a small fortune in what is a fairly obvious bribe, the network will remain and a satellite phone service is to be offered. Rocom Wireless is one of the first resellers off the starting block with the service here in New Zealand. (Prices are not available as yet.)

I need a satellite phone. I’ve just got back from the Cisco Networkers 2001 conference in Brisbane (thanks Cisco) and I used my cellphone extensively. I’ve gone off the whole idea of ever trying to connect my laptop through the hotel phone system ever again (I think I’ve probably told you repeatedly how frustrating the whole thing can be) and now I just use my cellphone and the media rooms at the event centres. Much easier.

Of course I don’t get email so I’ve just spent three hours going through two days’ worth catching up. I also can’t access the Notes database we use for story coordination, so don’t know what else is going on. I do have my cellphone and don’t pay the bill, so I can get access to my landline voice mail and can ring the editor to find out what’s what. Of course, the cellphone seemed to be bouncing the call off the New Zealand server before putting the call through to either end, so depending on where you were standing there could be no delay at all or an echo so long you felt the urge to say “over” after you’d finished speaking. This has to change.

Hopefully CDMA and GPRS will help with this kind of problem. That’s how they’re both being touted, anyway — use your cellphone and send data backwards and forwards when you need to. In the meantime I could do with a decent voice service from overseas as well.

So what did I do when the editor asked me to get confirm a rumour for a story with someone in Brisbane? I spoke to them in a meeting and rather than excusing myself and phoning through the answer I wanted to use technology and send the actual text through. Forget the laptop. Forget the media centre. I switched to SMS and messaged the answer through. Bloody marvellous I thought, feeling chuffed with myself until I remembered the chief sub has a different phone number now and I still had the old number. So I had to call him instead. Bugger.

So this is what I want for Christmas. An ultra thin laptop (forget the floppy drive, forget the CD-ROM or DVD, forget the 40-gig hard drive) with Bluetooth. A phone that offers voice and high-speed data in and around the world (also Bluetooth-enabled). A handheld device like the new Handspring Visor Edge with Bluetooth, GPRS, GPS locator, a dictionary, MP3 player and some other stuff I’ll think of in a minute just because it looks so damned cool.

One problem to the above scenario: satellite phones are scrambled and I really can’t see Rocom Wireless going cap in hand to Iridium and saying “Excuse me, but my government has enacted a law which requires all phone networks be made interception-ready. Can you downgrade the system so they can listen in on my customers’ calls please?” and even if they did I can’t see Iridium or any other satellite phone provider complying.

This kind of thing will become more and more common as things like phone networks are owned and operated offshore. It’s already difficult to pin down a hacker from overseas in the legal sense, or to stop someone “importing” pornography that breaches New Zealand law, when all they’re doing is viewing a website. Can you imagine the fun the government will have trying to clamp down on illicit phone usage? I for one can’t wait

Brislen is a Computerworld journalist. Send email to Paul Brislen.

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