Great ideas in IT, from ERP to CRM to cloud computing, virtualization and more, happen all the time, but they don’t always rise to the surface.
Often they crash and burn and have to start all over again.
But I bet that those are the ones that we truly remember — the ideas that continue to bounce back until somehow, in some way, through persistence, drive and refusal to accept defeat that they’re finally able to succeed and thrive.
That’s why I smiled when I read a news story last week about Iridium Communications in The Wall Street Journal, describing the company’s latest tech idea — using satellite communications to help guide airliners as they fly over the Earth’s expansive oceans and polar regions.
Back in 2001, I first wrote about Iridium, when it was called Iridium Satellite. In those heady days of the modern-day tech sector, the original Iridium got its start in 1998 and was crazy enough to try to attract everyday consumers to use its space age satellite-based phone communications system. That idea failed because the service was too expensive and the phones were too bulky back then.
But the idea still lingered.
Even the bankruptcy of the original Iridium in 2000 didn’t bury the concept. In 2001, the 66-satellite system, which was built originally for $5 billion, was sold for a mere $25 million to new owners by a bankruptcy court. That’s when the company changed names and decided to target a wider group of potential customers with their satellite communications ideas.
This time they aimed more toward business users, especially those in remote locations, such as construction workers, where other communications methods were often literally impossible. One key early user in 2000 was the U.S. Department of Defense which signed a two-year, $72 million contract to obtain secure wireless communications for about 20,000 government employees.
Five years later, Iridium began targeting its satellite-based communications toward emergency response workers around the world who needed immediate and reliable communications in the event of natural disasters and other crises. The system was interoperable with existing VHF and UHF radio communications systems, making it even more flexible for users. That idea got more traction, but Iridium still wasn’t taking over the communications world.
Still they weren’t giving up, even though by then the mass marketing of cell phones had arrived and flooded the global communications marketplace with relatively cheap and easy to acquire cell phones.
Now let’s fast-forward to today.
Iridium is still here and kicking and now they have another new idea, which just won regulatory approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The new market Iridium is targeting will use the satellite network to help guide airliners over the world’s oceans and North and South Poles with better communications and accuracy, while helping airlines to save fuel, reduce emissions and increase passenger safety.
The FAA approval represents “an important interim step toward international cooperation on satellite-based air-traffic-control networks” that will revolutionize the existing air traffic control system,” according to The Wall Street Journal story.
“Instead of pilots using sometimes-unreliable radio transmissions to communicate with controllers on the ground, now jetliners will be able to use the data link to report their en route positions and maintain safe distances from other aircraft as they cross national boundaries and oceans,” the story says. “For planes crossing the North Atlantic on busy flyways, Iridium’s services also will allow them to save fuel and time by cruising as close as 30 miles from each other. The current mandatory separation is 50 miles in all directions.”
Don Thoma, the marketing vice president for the new Iridium, said that the FAA approval for the new services has been in the works for the last six years, involving reviews, evaluations, studies and service trials. The FAA move means that aircraft flying over oceans will now be able to use its satellite data service for critical air traffic control communications as part of the evolving Future Air Navigation System (FANS).
Getting to this point in the company’s history has been a natural evolution, Thoma says. “What’s made us successful so far is not just one idea, but being able to serve different, diverse groups of customers. Ninety percent of the earth is not covered by a cell tower. With Iridium, you can connect with anyone from anywhere in the world.”
The latest strategy for growing the idea and the company is that the air traffic control market is large and ripe for improvement, he says. “Currently, if you are flying in a plane to Europe or Asia, the plane isn’t being tracked over the oceans” under the existing air traffic control system. Radars don’t cover flights over the oceans due to the distances involved.
Instead, trans-oceanic flights planes rely on using set routes, with their pilots communicating by old-fashioned radio every 15 minutes or so, Thoma says. “It’s very inefficient. People don’t realize it, but when you fly over oceans there are large periods of time when nobody actually knows exactly where you are.”
For many years, in addition to radio communications, commercial airplanes flying over oceans have been able to use another satellite-based service called Inmarsat. But that system doesn’t cover the earth’s poles, which limits airspace that can be used, Thoma says.
So Iridium kept working on its idea and technology and dreamed up the system that was just approved by the FAA.
“The approach the FAA is taking is that this will enable the creation of ‘fast lanes’ for airplanes using this service, with faster routes,” he says. “It will provide greater coverage for flights as polar routes open up more.
All along, Iridium has targeted its ideas and innovations toward its top five markets — government, commercial aviation, maritime, tracking and telemetry for trucking fleets and other businesses, and the satellite handset market for users who need reliable communications wherever they work and live.
They stuck with their plans, even when things didn’t work the way they were planned.
Even when a bankruptcy took the place down to its knees, someone came in to prop things back up and try, try again.
That’s what real innovators do. And they don’t panic about how much time it takes or what lies in their path.
“The FAA ruling was the culmination of a six-year process that began with the support of the FAA and the airlines,” Thoma said. “It can be sold right now. Airlines are equipping aircraft with this right now.”
Continental Airlines has been testing the services on some planes, as well as Hawaiian Airlines and Cargolux, a freight carrier, according to Iridium.
In the future, plans call for service to be available for in-flight communications for passengers using Iridium so they can make calls and send and receive email.
So what does this all mean?
I think it’s a fabulous reminder about how sometimes in IT and business, it’s so important to keep going despite the odds when you know your idea is too good to drop.
Yes, there are roadblocks and there can be huge adversity along the way. Such is life. But that’s when you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and try to find another way of doing things.
In my eyes, that’s what Iridium has been about so far.
They’re thinking about new ideas all the time. They didn’t let a little thing like a bankruptcy halt the overall mission of a good idea started by someone else who couldn’t make it fly at the time.
Now they are thinking bigger again, pushing Iridium’s products for pilots to use over oceans to gain communications and navigational abilities where radar and other systems don’t work. Maybe this will finally be the niche that will truly launch their great ideas.
It’s a tribute to how success in IT and business and the enterprise comes to those who keep trying, despite the odds.
Let this be a reminder to everyone in IT, in ERP, CRM, data centers and the rest to never give up on your great tech ideas. Someday, just maybe, they will actually be embraced and soar.
That is what true business success and inspiration are all about.
So what’s your great tech idea that’s waiting to happen? I’d love to hear about it.