European firm introduces cordless Iridium satcom

 - October 12, 2007, 7:27 AM

Cordless cabin telephony with global connectivity at an affordable price is the promise of Belgium’s Orb’Phone, a division of Euro GSM.

Orb’Phone managing director Yves Hendrickx said that the system was designed to overcome some shortcomings in existing satellite telephone systems, namely the limited number of lines they offer; that they usually cannot offer truly global coverage because of their reliance on geostationary satellites, which in turn demands a sophisticated antenna; and that they are expensive both to install and to use.

The system relies on the Iridium constellation of 66 low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, now managed by General Dynamics, as its transmission medium. The Iridium satellites were designed to be accessible directly by handsets. The satellites are arranged in six orbital planes of 11 each, an arrangement that ensures two satellites are always in line-of-sight of any location on Earth and in the sky and makes it possible to use a passive omnidirectional antenna.

As well as being relatively inexpensive, the antenna used with the Orb’Phone system is both light–just 14 ounces–and low drag with a diameter of 2.75 inches and a height of 0.6 inches. The associated system management box weighs 11 pounds, runs on 25-32V DC power at a modest 2.5A and is easy to install–aboard airliners it could be installed in overhead baggage bins, according to Orb’Phone. And installation takes no more than 12 hours.

To avoid interference and keep costs low, the Orb’Phone handset uses the Iridium protocol but at very low power levels. Transmitting at 1.5 or 2.4 GHz, it has a range of around 100 feet and its signal is amplified for transmission to the satellites. The satellite perceives each amplified signal as a separate call.

Charges of less than $2 per minute are comparable to those levied for international mobile phone calls. The handset can be connected to a laptop to provide e-mail and Internet access as well as both down- and up-link voice calls. The data rate is a relatively modest 9.6 kbps, “but that’s the same as we had at home just a few years ago, and it doesn’t cost $600,000,” Hendrickx pointed out.

Orb’Phone has already signed its first two airline customers, but initial installations have been on Dassault Falcon business jets. So far there have been approximately 15 installations on business jets, including Bombardier Learjets and a Raytheon Premier I. Airbus is working on certification of the system aboard the A320 family, including the Airbus Corporate Jet. Supplemental type certificates (STCs) are in progress or available for Embraer and Cessna Citation business jets, Hendrickx said. Orb’Phone holds the STCs for the business jet installations, which can be carried out by any competent avionics shop.

Euro GSM specializes in interconnecting fixed and mobile networks. In addition to Iridium operator General Dynamics, the company lists NASA spin-off Eagle Broadband as a partner.