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Gates, McCaw launch satellite data system

Bill Gates and Craig McCaw, two of America’s best known high-tech billionaires, have launched $ 9 billion plan to launch 840 satellites over seven years.

Their company, Teledesic Corp, would create a system bringing video, voice and data transmissions to millions of people in remote parts of the world that are bypassed by the information superhighway.

Teledesic asked federal regulators Monday for approval to use the airwaves in putting forth their plan. It will eventually need approval from foreign governments as well, and there is the issue of raising the $ 9 billion.

Motorola Inc., in conjunction with McDonnell-Douglas Corp. and partners in several countries, has embarked on a similar $ 3 billion venture called Iridium, which would use 66 satellites to provide portable voice, fax and paging service around the world by 1998.

Teledesic is designed for fixed locations, like the phone on the desk. Gates and McCaw also want to incorporate data and video signals, which will take more satellites and more money.

Gates founded and leads Microsoft. McCaw heads McCaw Cellular, the nation’s largest cellular phone service. He is selling it to AT&T for $ 12 billion in a deal expected to close later this year.

AT&T gave Teledesic further credibility by endorsing it Monday. Said Bob Kavner, exec VP of AT&T and chief executive of its multimedia activities. “With our acquisition of McCaw, we probably will end up having a position in what they’re talking about.”

Satellite communication has emerged as the cheapest way to link regions that are not already tied to the world’s phone networks. Many developing nations are turning to wireless systems before wired phone lines to catch up with the industrialized world.

But getting regulatory approval from some foreign countries could be difficult.

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