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You Can Call Home Easier Than E.T. Did

For terrestrials, technology is now available to call or FAX anywhere on earth using a briefcase-sized telephone device

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 20, 1993


WITHIN the next decade, you should be able to pull out a portable phone and use it anywhere in the world. It won't matter whether you're driving in Mt. Lebanon, Pa., or climbing Mt. Everest, in Tibet. You'll always be in touch.

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Of course, some of this is already possible. Cellular telephones already link up big cities and suburbs. By the year 2000, they'll be even more pervasive. But these networks won't reach the Sahara or the Australian outback. Worse, a cellular phone from the United States doesn't work in Europe because the systems use different standards.

One telecommunications industry thinks it has the answer for a worldwide hand-held phone: Satellites.

``It's kind of an international office-in-the-pocket concept,'' says Durrell Hillis, vice president and general manager of Motorola's satellite communications division. ``Now you can put a phone in your pocket and anywhere you go in the world, you have communications along with paging and facsimile.''

``The whole future of the business is in the hand-held,'' adds Ron Mario, president of Comsat Mobile Communications.

These two companies are at opposite ends of a commercial push to build the ultimate hand-held phone. The technological challenge is how to build such a system. Should the companies expand the current satellite system? Or start from scratch?

Motorola is starting from scratch. Its system, called Iridium, calls for 66 satellites orbiting the earth in a line around the North and South Poles. The cost: $3.5 billion. Availability: up and running by 1998, Motorola promises.

Comsat, based here in Bethesda, Md., is taking the most conservative route. It plans to expand an existing system called Inmarsat.

Inmarsat is an international consortium that provides telephone links to ocean-bound ships. Comsat is the US signatory to the consortium, its largest shareholder, and the only Inmarsat member covering the oceans around the work with its own facilities. By revamping the system, Comsat says it can create a worldwide portable telephone network for land users as well. ``This is all evolutionary,'' Mr. Mario says.

Other companies are also vying to establish satellite-based portable phones. Qualcomm and Loral have joined forces to build a 48-satellite network. TRW wants to launch a 12-satellite system in 1997, although it would not cover the world. American Mobile Satellite Communications plans next year to launch a satellite service covering North America.

These networks would probably complement rather than compete with ground-based mobile systems.

Mario sees his system attracting the professional traveler who needs to be in constant touch and cellular users who either live or travel to areas outside the range of cellular networks. Iridium and Inmarsat would use dual-use phones, capable of using either terrestrial networks, such as cellular, or satellites when the former aren't available.

``You're always going to have a need to fill the gaps,'' Mr. Hillis of Motorola says. Even in the United States, an estimated 25 million people won't be covered by cellular service in the year 2000.

Comsat's and Motorola's systems are poles apart in terms of technology. Iridium will use low-earth-orbiting satellites, about 460 miles above the surface of the earth. Inmarsat hasn't decided whether to use a geostationary system (23,300 miles up) or a mid-earth orbit (about 12,000 miles up). It has already rejected the low-earth-orbit as too cumbersome - and too expensive.

``It's a complicated network,'' Mario says of Iridium. For every $1 billion a company spends to build its system, it will have to charge users $1 a minute for using it. ``To me, the magic number is $2 billion.... Low-earth [satellites] didn't make sense, because you couldn't do it for that price.''