Iridium shuts down old fleet as IridiumNext services start up

07 February 2019 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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Iridium has shut down the last of its 20-year-old satellites and put its new, more powerful fleet of 66 satellites into operation.

CEO Matt Desch himself pressed the button to switch off the last two of the old fleet and switch traffic seamlessly to numbers 65 and 66 of the IridiumNext satellites, which were launched with eight others in January. The fleet includes nine spares in orbit plus six on the ground.

“Now zero traffic is going through the old satellites,” said Desch (pictured), speaking in Washington DC yesterday.

Now the company will be generating cash from its new services, with capex down to $35 million a year – on software, new product development and IT. “We’ll have growing revenue and significant free cash flow,” said CFO Tom Fitzpatrick.

The development was supported by $1.8 billion of credit backed by the French Treasury, said Fitzpatrick, and the company was charged only 5% interest. French-Italian company Thales Alenia Space made all the satellites, which were launched by SpaceX.

Iridium signed its deal with SpaceX when Elon Musk’s rocket company was just a start-up. “It was a big bet, very early, a half-billion dollar bet,” said Desch. “They are certainly going to get to Mars and probably beyond that.”

The extra capacity and power of the new satellites means Iridium has already launched maritime and terrestrial services on its Certus broadband platform, and aviation services “later this year”. The company will offer its Aireon aircraft tracking and surveillance system, with 100% global coverage. Earlier this week Iridium appointed Suzi McBride as COO. 

The broadband platform is 350kbps at the moment, and will be 700kbps later in the year, said Desch, who joined the company a decade ago when it was in financial difficulty to plan the $3 billion investment programme. Each of the IridiumNext satellites weighs a tonne and “is the size of a Mini Cooper”, he said.

Replacing a fleet without interruption is “a world first”, said Denis Allard, who headed the project for Thales Alenia. “Today there are 75 satellites in orbit and they are working perfectly.”

Iridium has already made 47 of the old fleet re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and crash into the sea and the last will follow “over the next couple of months”, said Desch.