It's not easy to convince people to rely on a system that for a time seemed to define the concept of "space junk." The first step, Picasso says, is to overcome the impression that the "constellation went dead."

In proving the viability of the satellite phone (and of satellite data services), Iridium has been boosted by the fact that its competitors are still alive, and selling. Globalstar, though burdened by its own ongoing reorganization, is aggressively marketing to maritime, mining, timber, and other niche markets. ICO has drawn up plans for a launch next year.

Business plans, meanwhile, have been radically redrawn. Although Iridium says there are at least 3.5 million potential customers around the world, and Globalstar estimates the number may top 20 million, both companies now need fewer customers to break even. Then there was Afghanistan. In a country with almost no modern infrastructure, satellite phones proved vital to everyone from journalists to relief workers to local warlords.

Compared to the gloom of a year ago, the long-term outlook of the satellite phone industry is remarkably bright. Iridium has even begun to consider how to fund next-generation service, once its satellites start to burn out around 2010. And telecom pioneer Craig McCaw is still moving ahead with his big plans for Teledesic, his broadband "Internet-in-the-Sky" system.

The most important lesson, Picasso says, is for such companies to be able to adapt rapidly to changing markets. "The people behind this had tremendous vision," he says. But ten years is a very long time in modern communications. "That's the game of technology. People have to take gambles like that all the time."

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