Communication firms battle for market
Comsat Corp. of Bethesda and Iridium Inc. are in a fight for the high ground; the outcome will help determine the future of satellite-based, hand-held communications.
Iridium is the international venture led by Motorola Corp. that plans to launch a "constellation" of 66 low-orbit satellites to handle calls from flip-phone-sized radios. On the other side is Comsat Mobile Communications, which, as the U.S. representative in the International Maritime Satellite Organization, is working on a competing scheme known as Inmarsat-P, or Project 21.
In October, Iridium filed papers with the Federal Communications Commission asking for a judgment on Comsat's right to participate in Inmarsat-P. According to John M. Windolph, Iridium's director of corporate communications, the 1978 act that established Comsat as the U.S. signatory to Inmarsat bars the company from providing land mobile services within the country.
Last week, Comsat filed a spirited defense to that suggestion. "Motorola tried to wrap themselves up in the American flag and paint us as a foreign organization," fumed John S. Hannon Jr., Comsat Mobile's vice president for legal affairs. As to the claim that Comsat is barred from land services, "That is just so much bunkum," Mr. Hannon said.
"We don't draw a distinction between maritime, aeronautical and land mobile," Mr. Hannon said. "When people have [communicators] in their pockets, they won't draw the distinction. There won't be any ability by a regulatory agency to draw those lines because the technology will transcend it."
To Mr. Windolph of Iridium, the issue is that "the playing field is not level."
He said that as an organization created by treaty, and with 71 member countries, Inmarsat has an array of privileges and immunities not enjoyed by Iridium as a private consortium. He cited protection from certain duties, liability claims and taxes, and guaranteed access to markets.
But Comsat cites a study by Deloitte Touche that says Inmarsat does not have significant competitive advantages. Comsat is playing up competition as a boon to consumers and a source of jobs in the United States in general and in Maryland in particular. It released a letter in its favor signed by all of Maryland's senators and representatives in Congress.
But at the same time that Comsat is maintaining it has the full legal right to be involved in Inmarsat-P, its top officers were raising the idea last week that it may be time to radically change the consortium's structure.
Computer conference draws thousands
Last week's Baltimore Computer Conference and Exposition drew nearly 3,500 to its seminars and 113 exhibit booths.
This year's Information Technology Award, designed to honor an individual associated with an innovative and successful use of computer technology in the Baltimore/Washington area, went to Bedrich Chaloupka of Globalink Inc. in Fairfax, Va., for his role as a pioneer in computer-based language translation systems.
The award cited Mr. Chaloupka's innovations in designing dictionaries and algorithms used in Globalink's software.
On the exhibit floor, Microsoft Corp. was proving that nothing succeeds at a trade show like a hot freebie. Booth visitors were lined up five deep at four computer terminals, filling out registration forms in exchange for nifty caps with a multicolored Windows NT logo.
Most of the exhibits stuck to the middle ground of accounting and inventory management software. Vendors and consultants on networking were more prominent than ever; one booth denizen was calling out, "Networks, get yer networks," like a ballpark vendor.
But breaking away from the ordinary were:
* Something old, at the Annapolis Apple Slice users' group booth. Seth Mize of Severna Park displayed his 10-year-old rarity, an Apple III, running the new BOS (Bob's Operating System).
* Something new: GTE's Vantage Solutions unit displayed its Desktop Video Teleconferencing System, letting show-goers chat via Windows with folks in GTE's Chantilly, Va., offices.
Nothing Blue, though; IBM did not have a booth.
Bell introduces wireless services
Bell Atlantic Corp. announced two wireless services last week that will round out a four-pronged package it dubs the AirBridge family.
Bell Atlantic Mobile's new Gateway service will translate between new error-correcting modem protocols, such as MNP-10, that are designed for use with cellular phones, and the older protocols found more commonly on office modems.
The conversion, which will be done within the cellular switches, is available in the Baltimore/Washington region, and costs $2.95 in any month in which it is used.
Another service, AirBridge Packet, will allow use of cellular digital packet data technology to piggyback brief bursts of computer data on cellular frequencies. Karen Ann Kurlander of Bell Atlantic said the service will allow applications like wireless alarm systems, mobile credit-card readers and self-monitoring vending machines. It should be available in this area by April.
Wireless fax services and customized plans for cellular data transmission round out the AirBridge offerings.