ATLANTA -- There is an awful lot of pie in the sky.
The dream of linking people and businesses in the most remote corners of the globe by satellite, advanced 40 years ago by science fiction guru Arthur C. Clarke, is now embraced by a slew of projects with hopes of a multibillion-dollar payoff in the next century.
The goal of some projects is to carry conversations. Others aim to make a person with a pager reachable anywhere on the planet. The most ambitious projects would carry huge loads of computer data, making the Internet truly global.
Companies from Motorola to Hughes are pouring mountains of money into the effort, lured by a projected $160 billion market in global wireless services. Firms like Norcross, Ga.-based Scientific-Atlanta are positioning themselves for lucrative contracts to supply equipment, while governments around the world ponder the prospects of licensing the services.
First out of the gate was the Iridium project, a consortium led by Motorola that plans to have 66 satellites carrying message, voice and data services starting in 1998.
In the United States, a billion-dollar campaign is under way with businesses ranging from regional phone companies like BellSouth to cable providers like MediaOne jockeying to bring high-speed fiber optics to the home and the office. The goal is to link users to high-speed voice and data networks through phone or cable lines.
In addition, more than half the Earth's population lacks televisions and telephone service, and for those people -- and travelers to their nations -- wireless technologies providing such amenities might be more feasible than waiting for poles to be strung with lines.
The most ambitious of the plans is Teledesic, which would put 840 satellites in low-Earth orbits so that users anywhere on the planet could be in reach of one. Teledesic hopes to provide a wide bandwidth for data-hungry applications like Internet surfing and video-conferencing and claims its design is superior to other plans.
But some engineers scoff, arguing that better computer switches can make up for the greater distance. Moreover, Teledesic itself must surmount some tough technical hurdles, like the need to "hand off" signals along a chain of low-level satellites. But Teledesic's backers are guys most folks don't want to bet against: billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates and wireless guru Craig McCaw.
Among others with visions of ringing the globe with satellites: Motorola has a non-Iridium project dubbed M-Star, matching Teledesic's approach for data-hungry uses, only for a limited area. It would have 72 low-orbit satellites.
Spaceway, a unit of Hughes Communications, aims for a satellite system providing high-speed data and interactive uses for anyone with a dish and a special computer terminal. Hughes says it will be ready for business in 1999.
ICO Global Space Communications is a spinoff from Inmarsat, an international consortium of countries and companies, which has long operated marine communications.
Globalstar, backed by Loral and Qualcomm, plans a 48-satellite system that could provide service for consumers.
Odyssey, backed by TRW and Teleglobe Inc. of Canada, have outlined a network of 12 satellites zipping along more than 5,000 miles above the Earth.
Pub Date: 12/29/96