PARIS — Mobile satellite services provider Iridium Communications has cleared the first of what will be multiple hurdles to winning approval from maritime regulators to provide Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) services.

Meeting July 4 in London, the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) subcommittee on navigation, communications and search and rescue agreed, over the protests of Britain but with the strong backing of the United States, to make an in-depth evaluation of Iridium’s ability to perform to IMO specifications in dealing with maritime emergencies.

One official attending the meeting said the United States was not alone in urging that the IMO perform a technical evaluation of the Iridium satellite constellation. Even nations that remain doubtful of whether McLean, Virginia-based Iridium can meet the IMO standards with Iridium’s current satellite constellation nonetheless supported permitting a full review.

Iridium’s application will be sent to IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee, which next meets in November. The application then will be delivered to a group of experts, whose members have not yet been decided, for a detailed review likely to last the better part of a year.

London-based mobile satellite services provider Inmarsat, an Iridium commercial competitor, had urged IMO members to reject Iridium’s application for a technical review, saying the aging Iridium constellation is incapable of meeting even those criteria needed to justify a technical evaluation. This was the view of the British government as well.

Other nations appeared to take the view that it could not hurt to let Iridium face technical scrutiny, and that their agreement to subject its system to an evaluation is not tantamount to endorsing Iridium as a GMDSS provider.

Maritime vessels above a certain tonnage are required to be equipped with the Inmarsat C onboard terminals for GMDSS.

But as an operator of satellites in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers over the equator, Inmarsat is unable to provide services in the polar regions. In contrast, Iridium’s 66-satellite low-orbiting fleet has global coverage. That, plus the fact that many nations would prefer to have at least two GMDSS suppliers, resulted in a consensus to go forward with the review.

In a written response to SpaceNews inquiries, Iridium on July 10 said it expects the review to start sometime after November and to last through the end of 2015. The company said it has agreed to finance the costs incurred during the technical and operational evaluations, but that the total cost is unlikely to exceed $200,000.

Iridium’s current satellites are past their planned retirement date and while several have failed, the company maintains a global service and says communications quality has not suffered. Iridium is in the middle of a $3 billion capital investment in a second generation of satellites, called Iridium Next, whose launches are scheduled to start in June 2015 with two satellites that will need to be put through validation tests before Iridium deploys the full constellation. 

The subsequent Iridium Next satellites will be launched 10 at a time on seven Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Falcon 9 rockets. The constellation will not be fully deployed before 2017.

The IMO technical review will thus be occurring just as Iridium begins deploying its new constellation. Inmarsat has argued that IMO should forgo the technical review until Iridium’s new constellation is in operation, a view that was not shared by the organization’s members.

In its statement, Iridium said its application for GMDSS certification “is based on the functionality supported by the existing constellation, which will also be supported by Iridium Next.

“We expect the group of experts to perform their evaluation of the application based on the satellites in operation at the time of testing. If that occurs after our first launch of two satellites and testing is complete, then it is likely the results would include the network operations performance with the existing Block 1 satellites and Iridium Next satellites.

“We don’t anticipate the [IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee] postponing the technical evaluation until a large sampling of Iridium Next satellites is in operation.”

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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.