Iridium was one of the most spectacular company collapses of the sky-high '90s. A global satellite phone network built atop $5 billion of the world's most advanced technologies, it slid into bankruptcy less than a year after the launch of service.
Yet now Iridium is back, along with the satellite phone. Invigorated by a stellar performance in the Afghanistan war, and fortified by a fat contract with the Pentagon, a system that almost burned up in the atmosphere two years ago is again seeking new customers. And having cast off billions of dollars in debt and tens of millions of dollars in operating expenses, Iridium may actually have found the right balance of price versus debt to allow it to succeed.
Rather than relying on the tower-to-tower coverage of cell phones, the satellite phone uses satellite links to cover at least part of the distance between callers. Iridium's network uses satellite linkages, making it able to cover the entire globe, even where no cellular phone towers stand for thousands of miles. One of the great "technological gambles" of the last century, in the words of new CEO Gino Picasso, Iridium once aimed for a place inside the briefcases of every business-class traveler in the world.
Now, humbled, it is content to market itself as a "low-cost solution" for truck drivers, fishing boat crews, and cabin dwellers who suddenly want to be connected. They're also a natural, via rental or lease, for adventure travelers who want a link to home when they're out kayaking the Snake River or hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Coming late to market is bad in any business. But it is rarely as disastrous as it was for Iridium. When conceived in the late '80s, Iridium was to be a universal phone, with the potential for a near universal market.