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Iridium's latest satellite phone -- the Iridium 9555 -- is a vast departure from most existing "brick" satellite phones and appears well on its way to looking like a cell phone.
The handset was introduced at this week's Iridium Partner Conference and is expected to be available for customers next month.
Once given up for dead after $6 billion was plowed into the company, Iridium has gradually clawed its way back to become a successful company, although much smaller than what its original business plan called for.
With its hand-friendly form factor and bright screen, the 9555 is expected to find a large audience among first responders and public-safety users. The phone has a miniUSB port and features e-mail capability.
"Iridium phones are the only handsets that can be used in absolutely any location, in any condition, instead of cellular, landline, or radio services that can become inoperable when towers go down or telecommunications infrastructure is compromised," said Don Thoma, Iridium's VP of marketing, in a statement. "The 9555 is the phone that first responders will want to have on hand for backup emergency communications in case of natural or man-made disasters."
Satellite phones supplied by Iridium and Globalstar proved to be invaluable during the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005, and ever since first responders have been stocking up on satellite phones. During the devastating hurricane, many first responders didn't know how to operate the phones and many phones hadn't been properly charged. Since then, however, public-safety personnel have moved to keep the phones in ready-to-go mode.
While still expensive by cell phone standards, the 9555, along with new calling plans, is expected to bring the phone into the affordability range of more U.S. rural users, who can't get traditional cell phone service. A refurbished Iridium phone can cost less than $1,000 -- and even less on eBay -- while some corporate calling plans enable users to call for as little as 15 cents a minute, although typical calls range from 99 cents to $1.49 a minute.
Iridium operates a constellation of 66 low-flying satellites that operate as a meshed network. The network covers the entire earth, including oceans and polar regions. The company is estimated to have more than 300,000 customers.