Geeks to the rescue!

Three programmers try to spark a grass-roots movement on the Net to save global satellite network Iridium from a fiery death in space.

Published March 23, 2000 10:00AM (EST)

Can the collective power of the Net rescue a multibillion dollar satellite network from being burned up in the atmosphere? Mike Emka, Jason Matthews and Christopher Neitzert hope so.

Thursday morning, the three longtime friends, who are systems administrators and network architects, launched the Web site for Save Our Sats, a yet-to-be-incorporated nonprofit that hopes to raise money to save the apparently doomed satellite network Iridium. Just Monday night they hatched their rescue plans, where else but in a chat room.

The site bears the same design as the Iridium site, as well as the marketing language announcing: "The world's first handheld global satellite telephone & paging service is here," with this fervent addition: "NOW THEY WANT TO BURN IT ALL UP!!!! DON'T LET THEM!!! SAVE IRIDIUM!!!"

Iridium spent an estimated $5 billion to $7 billion building the satellite network, but despite the engineering feat (66 low-orbit satellites providing a wireless connection around the globe), it was a business debacle and recently went into bankruptcy. If a buyer isn't found, the satellites will roast in the funeral pyre of the Earth's atmosphere.

It's a cause to stir a true techie's heart. "This is the eighth wonder of the world," enthuses Neitzert, a Brooklyn-based technical consultant. "This is the first global blanketing network. It covers every square mile of the globe. We thought it would be a shame to see it go down. It would be a great waste of Iridium's money, Motorola's money and taxpayers money if they were to burn it up." Motorola owns a significant chunk of the now bankrupt enterprise.

Save Our Sat's quixotic goal is raising the $650 million it estimates is needed to purchase the network and operate it for the first year. Its ambitious game plan is to inspire 3 million Web surfers to join the crusade by signing up for a credit card. It has partnered with NextCard; if you sign up for a NextCard credit card through the Save Iridium site, a $50 bounty will go to the satellite rescue mission. The group plans to get the other $500 million from "other sources." Maybe that Ask Jeeves ad on the bottom of the home page that donates 6 cents a click to the cause will help. The site is also accepting pledges for donations. Naturally, a T-shirt that will say something like "I helped save Iridium! Save Our Sats" is in the works for donors.

So far, Iridium hasn't exactly embraced Save Our Sats' overtures. "We've made calls to Iridium and all associated parties with regards to open-sourcing it, and they have yet to return our calls," Neitzert explains. The defunct company is currently entertaining bids from a number of smaller companies, such as Merit Studios of Las Vegas, which have made offers to buy the network. If no buyer is found the network will be destroyed sometime in the next few months.

"This is one of the biggest pieces of engineering that has ever happened in human history," laments Neitzert. "In terms of the number of square miles it covers it beats the Internet 10 to 1. We feel that it would be sad, almost an engineer's sacrilege, to allow these birds to burn up in the sky."

He won't say how much money Save Our Sats has raised for the cause so far, although he says he's pledged to pony up $10,000 of his own once the nonprofit has raised matching funds.

In the unlikely event that Save Our Sats does quickly raise hundreds of million of dollars for the cause, the organization would operate as a nonprofit on a kind of public television model, in what they call, in the loosest sense of the term -- open source. The organization would be collectively controlled by thousands of members and volunteers with no one company or person owning a controlling interest. Members would receive a discount for Iridium phone service, which could also be used for global Net access, albeit at 9,600 baud, and any other purpose the collective genius of the owners could dream up.

"We are looking for volunteers of the highest caliber from all fields to help us with this," says Neitzert. "This is not about the three of us, it's about the world uniting together to open source the eighth wonder of the world."

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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