It’s sometimes easy to forget that video calling anybody on the other side of the world only became mainstream less than 20 years ago. Yet with the ability to reach loved ones without counting the minutes, track the location of virtually any item, and transfer data faster and easier than ever before, it’s probably fair to say that we now take constant connectivity for granted. Businesses and governments can also operate with incredible efficiency, maintaining effective and reliable communication, facilitating valuable insights, and ensuring immeasurable safety.
As the only commercial provider of communications services offering truly global coverage, Iridium Communications have been helping to connect people, organizations, and assets to and from anywhere, in real time for over two decades. The company’s low-earth orbit (LEO), L-band network provides reliable, weather-resilient communications services to regions of the world where terrestrial wireless or wireline networks do not exist or are limited.
The company’s main product is a global satellite constellation called the Iridium satellite network, which provides communications coverage over the entire Earth, including the poles. The network which is composed of 66 active satellites is used to provide a variety of communication services, including voice and data services, to almost two million business, government, and individual customers. In addition, Iridium also provides a wide range of products and services related to satellite-based location and tracking, as well as industry-specific communications applications across the aviation and shipping sectors.
Given the lack of coverage of most of the earth’s surface by terrestrial wireless systems, Iridium’s unique satellite network has it well-positioned to capitalize on the growth in the industry from end users who require reliable, easy-to-use mobile communications services in all locations. Furthermore, with the significant financial investment, as well as technological and regulatory challenges to build such a global capability, the company’s strong partnerships with U.S. and foreign governments have it primed for continued growth.
In 1987, Bary Bertiger, Ray Leopold, and Ken Peterson envisioned a revolutionary system of communications and began working on a satellite-based system designed to connect people on a global scale. Initially a project in a Motorola research lab in Arizona, Iridium was built on technology developed for U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s abandoned “Star Wars” program. Iridium was designed to use satellite technology as an alternative to cellular devices, which, at the time, were bulky and expensive. Over the next decade, more than 90 satellites were built and launched to create the first global satellite network.
However, in that time, cell phone technology had greatly expanded, making it much less expensive and much more convenient for consumers, and also making it difficult for Iridium to continue under its previous business model. As a result, in 1999, the company declared bankruptcy. The following year, Motorola announced its plan to deorbit all satellites and permanently shut down the Iridium network. Yet just days before the scheduled deorbiting, the US government, along with a small group of investors, stepped in to save Iridium, by providing $72 million and promising to leverage the power of the network in new ways.
In 2007, Iridium announced plans for Iridium NEXT, a mission that would completely replace the original satellite constellation and go on to become the largest space-based technology refresh in history. Taking a gamble and partnering with then-newcomer SpaceX, the company ultimately launched 75 next-generation satellites and the new constellation became fully functional by 2019. The upgraded Iridium constellation is still made up of 66 active satellites, with an additional nine kept as in-orbit spares, which are expected to service Iridium users around the globe beyond 2030.
Matthew Desch has been the chief executive officer of Iridium Communications since 2006. He has more than 35 years of experience in the telecom industry and was an early pioneer in the global wireless industry. Desch has been responsible for leading Iridium’s innovation and growth, which includes taking the company public on NASDAQ and realizing the Iridium NEXT project. Since joining in 2006, the company has experienced more than 400 percent growth in subscribers and more than five times growth in profitability. Prior to 2006, following 13 years at Nortel Networks Corporation, he was CEO of Telcordia Technologies, a telecommunications software services provider that is now part of Ericsson. He also serves on the President’s National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee.
Supporting Desch, Suzanne E. McBride has served as Iridium’s chief operations officer since 2019, although has a long history with the company. McBride has more than 25 years of experience in the satellite industry, including building and launching the original Iridium constellation while at Motorola’s Satellite Communications Group as a senior engineer in the 1990s. From 2007 until 2016, she was employed by Iridium in a series of positions with increasing responsibility, culminating in a role in which she oversaw the launch program for the NEXT constellation. After serving as COO at OneWeb Ltd., a company that is building a new satellite constellation, McBride returned to Iridium in 2019.
Iridium provides voice and data communications services to a vast range of businesses, the U.S. and foreign governments, non-governmental organizations, and consumers. Mobile satellite services users span many sectors, including emergency services, transportation, utilities, mining, and construction, among many others, where satellite communications services are considered critical to daily operations.
Multinational corporations in various sectors use Iridium’s services for business telephony, email and data transfer, including telematics, personal location and asset tracking, and to provide mobile communications services for employees in areas inadequately served by other telecommunications networks.
Shipping and aviation are major markets for Iridium with ship crews and passengers using its services for ship-to-shore calling, as well as to send and receive email and data files, electronic media, weather reports, emergency bulletins, and electronic charts. While shipping operators transmit data, such as course, speed, fuel, weather, and other navigation service data.
Aviation end users use its services for air-to-ground telephony and data communications for position reporting, flight following, emergency tracking, weather information, electronic flight bag updates, and airline operational communications. The Iridium network also hosts the Aireon system, which provides a global air traffic surveillance service through a series of automatic receivers on its satellites.
Iridium’s unique architecture minimizes the need for local ground facilities to support the constellation, which facilitates the global reach of its network and allows it to offer services in countries and regions where it has no physical presence. As a result, explorers and adventurers use Iridium services as a safety and critical communications lifeline to remain in contact with friends and family, as well as for emergency distress signals. The company has also seen growing adoption in supporting autonomous systems, for use in command and control, image transmission, and environmental data gathering via unmanned aerial, underwater, and surface vehicles.
Iridium sells its products and services through a wholesale distribution network, encompassing approximately 100 service providers, almost 300 resellers, and another 100 manufacturers, which create and sell technology that uses the Iridium network either directly to the end-user or indirectly through other service providers. These distributors often integrate the products and services with other complementary hardware and software, which has developed a broad suite of applications that target specific lines of business.
The increasing penetration of mobile device usage has created unprecedented demand for mobile satellite services. Yet despite significant penetration and competition, terrestrial wireless systems do not cover a large majority of the earth’s surface and are focused mainly in those areas where people live. Consequently excluding oceans and other remote regions where ships, airplanes, and other remote assets may travel or be located. In addition to over five billion unique mobile subscribers across the planet, the increasing adoption of Internet of Things devices has created an even further need for reliable mobile voice and data communications services.
It is expected that mobile satellite offerings will continue to experience growth driven by the increasing need for these reliable services, particularly as the continued development of innovative, lower-cost technology brings further embedding of satellite capability into terrestrial smartphones. Part of the company’s strategy also includes the development of personal mobile satellite communications that will allow individuals to connect to the Iridium network in more ways, including from devices such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops. To achieve this, Iridium is making its technology more accessible and cost-effective for distribution partners to integrate and license new products. As demonstrated by the company’s recent announcement that it has agreed with Qualcomm Technologies to enable satellite messaging and emergency services in smartphones.
Iridium has a business model that is characterized by high capital costs, in connection with designing, building, and launching new generations of the satellite constellation, and a low incremental cost of providing service to additional end users. As a result, it is expected that service revenue will continue to be Iridium’s largest source of future growth and profits, and it intends to focus on growing both commercial and government service revenue to leverage this largely fixed-cost infrastructure. In particular, competitive data services are targeting engaging large, global enterprises as long-term customers for data and telematics solutions, and represent the company’s greatest opportunities for service revenue growth.
Iridium is also expanding its target markets by developing and offering a broader range of products and services to meet an expanding set of customer requirements. New services are already providing background IP data, high-quality voice, messaging, and safety services, for maritime and aeronautical applications, while devices such as antennas are providing ever-improving capabilities with smaller and more lightweight and cost-effective designs.
Currently, the U.S. government is Iridium’s largest single customer and continues to make significant investments in a dedicated gateway to provide operational security and allow U.S. government handset and IoT users to communicate securely with other government communications equipment. This gateway is only compatible with Iridium’s satellite network. The seven-year, $738.5 million airtime contract with the U.S. Space Force, provides a wide range of specialized services for an unlimited number of Department of Defense and other federal government subscribers. In addition, due to ongoing investments by the DoD, Iridium also expects to see growth in adoption as enhancements are implemented and new services are launched.
Long leaving behind its past financial failings, Iridium is now on track to deliver a decade of continuous year-over-year revenue growth. After reporting third-quarter total revenue of $184.1 million, consensus estimates have the company closing out 2022 with just under $700 million in revenue, which will achieve another record year and deliver almost 14% growth year-over-year. The strong performance has largely been due to an increase in services revenue across voice and data, IoT, and broadband accounts, as voice and data subscribers rose 8% from a year ago to over 400,000 customers. IoT data subscribers also grew an impressive 22% to over 1.4 million customers, driven by continued strength in consumer personal communications devices.
With this increase in revenue, profitability has also improved for the first three quarters of 2022, as gross profits improved from $345.6 million to $383.0 million, while net income went from a loss of $3.5 million to a $9.5 million profit across the comparable nine month periods.
Looking ahead, consensus estimates have Iridium continuing its growth into 2023 with expected sales of $748.5 million representing year-over-year growth of almost 7%. While full-year earnings per share estimates for 2022 are forecasted to continue its positive trend of improvement at $0.06 per share, up from a loss of $0.07 in 2021, then again jumping 177% to $0.17 in 2023.
Iridium faces substantial competition from several other service providers that offer a range of mobile and fixed communications options. And to the extent that terrestrial communications companies invest in underdeveloped areas, it also competes with them indirectly. Its principal mobile satellite services competitors are Inmarsat, Globalstar, ORBCOMM, and Thuraya Telecommunications Co., which provide varying levels of technology that ultimately vary widely based on coverage, quality, mobility, and pricing.
Many of these competitors use geostationary (GEO) satellites, which orbit above the earth’s equator, limiting their visibility to far northern or southern latitudes and polar regions, while the LEO design of Iridium’s satellite constellation produces minimal transmission delays compared to GEO systems due to the shorter distance that signals have to travel. Iridium’s L-band spectrum is also more resistant to weather interference than the K-band spectrum used by many of its competitors.
Iridium’s true global coverage has made it a standout in the satellite industry and with the continued growth of the space economy coupled with ever-increasing data needs for the growing numbers of connected devices on earth, the company is well-positioned to take advantage of future growth.