Iridium Communications successfully finished the refresh of its satellite constellation, with the last 10 new Iridium NEXT satellites launched on the morning of January 11, 2019 onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. A total of 75 new satellites across 8 launches have been conducted by SpaceX over less than two years.
The new satellite network, a $3 billion investment, replaces the original Iridium constellation put up over two decades and one bankruptcy ago. Iridium expects to start generating cash for at least the next decade as well as to offer new services using the new hardware. One new offering is Iridium Centrus, providing faster Internet access In L-band using smaller, more cost effective equipment. Iridium’s new Aireon venture will provide ADS-B aircraft surveillance tracking for air traffic controllers and airlines across the entire planet, providing new business and safety services.
Iridium went all-in with SpaceX, deciding to launch all of its new satellites with the company rather than spread them around between different launch providers. It also showed a preference for using “flight-proven” Falcon 9 first stages, with several flights taking place using the reusable boosters.
Over the past (almost) two years, Iridium has been replacing its old satellites with new NEXT ones on a one-for-one, new for old replacement. The operational Iridium satellite constellation uses six polar orbiting planes containing 11 crosslinked satellites with a total of 66 to provide global coverage, with the additional 9 satellites provisioned as in-orbit spares. Another 6 satellites remain as storage for ground spares.
The completion of the Iridium NEXT refresh comes at an opportune time for the company. Numerous challengers in the Internet of Things (IoT) space have emerged, some promising the ability to significantly lower the cost of satellite-based IoT services down to $3 to $5 per device per month. Meanwhile, OneWeb, Telesat, and SpaceX are planning broadband services delivering low-latency, gigabit class services to contrast against Iridium’s 1.5 Mbps top offering.
Against these challenges, Iridium has three significate advantages. First, the company has an established track record of operations. It also has an established customer base in the IoT arena, so displacing it with another service provider could prove to be a long-term challenge rather than a short-term flip. Finally, Iridium NEXT is in the sky and operating, with an expected orbital lifetime of at least a decade – likely longer, given the nearly two decades of the original Iridium constellation satellites. Competitors will have to provide a significant price and/or performance advantage to displace Iridium.