Although Iridium won't be offering its satellite service on a global scale from September 23 as planned, a selected number of subscribers will start using the system this week.
Two thousand Iridium phones are being distributed to individual, corporate and government customers worldwide, including New Zealand. A full commercial launch has been postponed to November 1.
Carlton Jennings, chief executive of Iridium's local operator Melbourne-based Iridium South Pacific, says: "These subscribers in Australia, New Zealand and South Pacific Islands will be among the first to use the system and enjoy the convenience of one phone, one number, one bill." Although it would not say how many handsets will be allocated to New Zealand. Iridium South Pacific says it is going to "specifically select subscribers based on their representation across our strategic markets".
In New Zealand Iridium has negotiated a deal with Telecom which will give it access to Telecom's cellular network, while Telecom mobile customers travelling overseas can use Iridium's network for global roaming. Telecom will also sell Iridium phones through its new business direction stores, and will provide billing and customer care services to local Iridium customers.
Telecom spokesman Peter Brittenden says: "There's certainly an interest in Iridium, probably because of the overseas roaming aspect. Most interest is from people who travel a lot. The only other possibility is that there are some small pockets of people in New Zealand who don't get cellular coverage, although coverage is about 98%."
The Iridium system is a satellite-based, wireless personal communications network designed to permit any type of telephone transmission — voice, paging, fax or data — to reach its destination anywhere on Earth. It combines the coverage of the 66 low Earth orbiting satellites with the world's terrestrial cellular networks. Callers access the network using the Iridium phone (manufactured by Motorola and Kyocera) which can work as a mobile cellular phone (in areas with compatible cellular service) and as a satellite telephone.
As a mobile phone, it seeks out available service from existing land-based networks. In this way it operates the same as existing cellular systems. When the cellular service is not available, the Iridium user can switch the phone to satellite operation. The call is relayed from satellite to satellite until it reaches its destination, either through a local Iridium gateway and the public switched telephone network or directly to a receiving Iridium phone. Iridium satellites can also keep track of the user's telephone location anywhere on the globe. A signal bearing the telephone's unique identification number is relayed back to the user's home gateway operator. This provides the data necessary to process customers accounts, as well as to interconnect with conventional phone systems. Gateways are owned and operated by Iridium investors.
Worldwide Iridium has signed more than 295 distribution agreements with service providers and roaming partners serving more than 100 million subscribers in 122 countries.
New Zealand's other cellular network provider, BellSouth, is unlikely to partner with Iridium, as BellSouth's new owner, Vodafone, has an interest in an alternative satellite consortium, GlobalStar.
The Iridium concept was first proposed by Motorola engineers in 1987 and announced publicly in 1990. Iridium was founded the following year, and signed a $US3.7 billion contract to develop and build the system.
Iridium South Pacific is a joint venture between PT Bakrie Communications of Indonesia (61%) and DDI of Japan (39%).