Mobile subscribers off the air

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 April, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 April, 2000, 12:00am


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Local users of the world's most expensive mobile-phone system have been left with a phone set that cost more than $30,000 one year ago but is now worthless.

Iridium, the first satellite mobile-phone system that could reach anywhere in the world, was a US$7 billion (HK$54 billion) project launched in late 1998. It was declared bankrupt on March 17 after defaulting on US$1.55 billion in bank loans.

Motorola, which developed the technology and was a major shareholder, said it had no idea how many users there were in Hong Kong or the mainland.

The company has never officially disclosed how many global subscribers Iridium had, but analysts put it between 20,000 and 30,000 when it needed at least 500,000 to break even.

Jade merchant Philip Wong Pak-fai, 36, bought his US$3,100 phone set - plus US$1,000 deposit - in the United States because he had to make regular business trips to Burma, where the phone system frequently breaks down. At peak charges, he had to pay US$8 a minute, although this dropped to US$2 shortly before the system came down.

'When you were in a place like Burma and you desperately needed to get on the phone, paying US$8, or even US$100, a minute might be necessary,' Mr Wong said.

'You could use cheaper international mobile-phone services but they are usually monitored by secret agents in the country.

'Iridium used its own unique system and frequency and it was impossible for them to listen in.' The communications system, based on 66 low-orbit satellites, cannot be linked to other mobile-phone services, making the high-priced phone set now worthless.

Mr Wong said he did not expect to receive a refund but was worried about finding a replacement system.

The satellites will be decommissioned in the next few months and destroyed when they re-enter the atmosphere.