Geeks In Space!

So you thought the revolution was over? The information superhighway's fibre-optic express routes cross the globe, spinning digits across the oceans at the speed of light. Sorry, but that's not enough: fibre will never reach the middle of the Sahara Desert, or a ship out in the Pacific. And there's only one way to get the bits out there: from space. The online world has set its sights on NASA's territory, and is racing out to claim its share of the high frontier.

Motorola was first, then came Qualcomm, and now Bill Gates: all fighting for a slice of sky. all wanting to put a telephone in your pocket. So it's time to throw away the big dumb boosters and the lumps of metal strung out in a necklace 22,000 miles above the equator: for the visionaries who built the Net see things rather differently...

It's like the '70s all over again. Satellite communications is currently dominated by a few big companies, with big satellites and bigger customers: IBM in the sixties, in the sky. Hughes Aerospace builds the birds, Intelsat and Inmarsat operate them. If you're the BBC or British Telecom you might get to use them, from expensive fixed ground stations or just-about-portable satellite phones. But quietly, hidden in the background, new technology has been sneaking up on the orbiting mainframe, and if there's one thing the Silicon Valley geeks know it's how to use new technology.

Space is getting cheaper. The American Clementine mission recently showed that off-the-shelf components could produce better results than an expensive custom built probe - the hardware survived its journey to the moon, and Clementine was ready for a trip to an asteroid when it hit a software bug, turned on all its thrusters, and promptly ran out of fuel.

Meanwhile, on the ground, a company with a winged rocket and a second-hand Lockheed Tristar is undercutting NASA and Arianespace. Orbital Science's Pegasus booster is dropped from an aircraft, before firing its solid-rocket and leaping for orbit. They're not alone in working on cheap ways of putting lumps of metal in orbit. McDonnell Douglas has been experimenting with the DC-X, a prototype single stage to orbit launcher. With it's many cheap rocket engines and solid construction DC-X has more than proved the SSTO concept - for less than the cost of the Space Shuttle's toilet.

Cheap satellites and cheap launchers: the building blocks of a new industry.

The geeks who grew up with science fiction dreams of pocket phones and computers are now billionaires and CEOs. They want to build the future they dreamed, as they stumbled through a bookish high-school and college. The nerds are here, and they've got the cash.

First off the launch pad were Motorola, flush with dollars after building the world's cellular phone systems. At heart Motorola are a workstation company - powerful machines on the desktop, not cheap, but as good as the mainframe they've replaced. This philosophy is at the heart of their satellite system. Iridium project intends to provide cheap global communications (voice, fax, e-mail) from its 66 satellites - there were originally going to be 77: the atomic number of Iridium. The Iridium consortium has already raised almost a billion dollars, for its $3 billion project, with international partners in every continent. The main catch: a terminal will cost nearly $3000. Of course, as time goes by, it'll get cheaper - but then, who'll be the early adopters? It's like the DEC Alpha, really neat if you can afford one.

Globalstar is the brainchild of navigation systems manufacturer Loral and communications experts Qualcomm (makers of the Eudora email program). Cheap and fast, Globalstar's 48 satellites will use half the power of Motorola's, whilst providing nearly 20 times the capacity. How can they do this? Motorola are sending data to and from Iridium in defined timeslots. Qualcomm are hopping their lower power signals across the frequencies, allowing many more people to share the same piece of radio spectrum. It'll also be a lot cheaper to use than Iridium - a Globalstar phone will only be about $750 (about the same price as an early cellular phone). Think of Globalstar as a Silicon Graphics Indy - as good as the best of them, and a lot cheaper.

There's a new boy in satellite town, and the pioneers are staring to look worried. It's Bill Gates, and he's not building mainframes or workstations. Bill's got Satellites for Windows: 840 of them to be precise. Microsoft are part of the Teledesic group, together with one of the largest US cellular companies, McCaw. Teledesic wants to build 840 small satellites, making many to make them cheap, throwing them into orbit 8 at a time. When the Teledesic system is complete there'll be the equivalent of 2 million T1 1.5 Megabit per second digital lines in the sky, ready to be grabbed by 20 million potential customers. And all for $9 billion dollars. They won't offer voice, just e-mail and data, but like a PC, it won't be difficult to plug in some software to turn a Teledesic terminal into a phone.

The lights are still red, but the geeks are lined up at the start, waiting for the green, and a dash for cash from space. Their accountants are smiling, all hoping for a lot more than pennies from the digital heavens. It's a race we're all going to watch.