An International Maritime Organization (IMO) panel has made the correct call in agreeing to evaluate the Iridium mobile satellite communications service for possible certification to relay distress signals from ships and aircraft to rescue authorities.

The key word here is “evaluate”: The IMO, the United Nations agency that regulates international shipping, has neither approved nor endorsed Iridium Communications as a Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) service provider. Rather, the IMO’s subcommittee on navigation, communications, and search and rescue has agreed to a technical assessment, at Iridium’s own expense, to determine whether the company’s satellite constellation and related ground infrastructure meet the organization’s very specific standards for GMDSS service.

The move, though hardly a giant leap, was strongly opposed by the British government, which argued that Iridium’s system falls short of IMO standards. British authorities were essentially echoing the position of London-based mobile satellite services operator and Iridium competitor Inmarsat, currently the only certified provider of GMDSS services. 

Certainly there are legitimate questions about the ability of Iridium’s existing constellation to support a safety-of-life service that is mandated for all ships above a certain tonnage. Iridium’s satellites are well past their design lives — several have failed — and the U.S. government has reserved the right to force the company to deorbit the entire constellation if it is judged to pose an orbital debris risk.

Iridium counters that in the event of a satellite failure, the system’s intersatellite links enable it to restore service in the affected area well within the IMO’s time specifications. Iridium also says it is highly unlikely that the U.S. government, which backed the company’s request to be considered as a GMDSS service provider, would order it to scuttle its satellites, noting that the U.S. military is an anchor customer for Iridium services.

That debate aside, there are good reasons to have Iridium as a GMDSS service provider, beginning with the fact that currently there is only one, and many IMO member nations would prefer to have two available. Perhaps more importantly, because Inmarsat operates its satellites in geostationary orbit above the equator, its services in the Arctic, a region that is opening up to more maritime traffic due to global warming, are limited. This is not the case with Iridium’s low-orbiting system, which covers the entire globe.

Iridium’s second-generation constellation is in development, with the first two satellites slated to launch around the middle of next year, while the yearlong review is still underway. It is therefore possible that the analysis could take into account the capabilities of these two craft, but Iridium is clear that it is only asking the IMO to consider its existing assets — the full Iridium Next constellation won’t be in place before 2017. 

The bottom line is there is little if anything to lose and lots to be gained by evaluating Iridium as a potential GMDSS service provider, especially with the company footing the bill. For the IMO, that logic was simply too compelling to be dismissed.