One of the most groundbreaking innovations in this year’s iPhone 14 lineup is something you’ll hopefully never have to use: the ability to summon help in remote areas by connecting to satellites instead of relying on traditional cellular networks.
Although the new Eemergency SOS via satellite feature won’t be switched on until later this year, this is likely to be only the first step in Apple’s plans for an even more connected world.
Wireless technology companies like Qualcomm and Ericsson have been working on ways to deliver 5G connectivity via satellite for a while, and T-Mobile has partnered with SpaceX to eventually bring an end to cellular dead zones. Still, it seems that Apple has beaten them all to the punch — and it may have even more exciting ideas in mind. Apple’s deep pockets and the tight control it exercises over hardware and software allow it to build complete solutions like this one more quickly than its competitors. It also helps that the iPhone maker is willing to start small.
It’s typical of Apple’s playbook to introduce new features in small and practical ways and build from there. The original iPhone didn’t do nearly as much as its competitors, but it did a few things very well. Similarly, this year’s Apple Watch Series 8 adds a temperature sensor with the relatively narrow and specific purpose of tracking women’s menstrual cycles, but it’s not hard to imagine that future WatchOS updates and Apple Watch models will eventually find other ways to use this sensor.
Apple is likely following the same strategy with the new Emergency SOS via satellite feature, dipping its toes into the waters of satellite connectivity with a very useful feature that doesn’t put too much of a strain on the company’s resources or set unrealistically high customer expectations.
Apple has launched its own satellite constellation
Perhaps the most significant indication that Apple is serious about satellite connectivity is how much it’s invested to deliver what currently amounts to an emergency SOS feature.
When Apple unveiled the iPhone 14 lineup earlier this month, it didn’t say much about what satellites the emergency SOS feature would be using. Many assumed Apple was renting space on an existing low-earth orbit (LEO) constellation such as the well-known Iridium network.
ISRO’s Small Satellite Launch Vehicle launches for the first time from Sriharikota, India, on Sunday, August 7. ISRO
However, it turns out that Apple is effectively launching its own satellite constellation to power this feature — and spending a whopping $450 million to do it.
An Apple spokesperson told Reuters that it has selected Globalstar as its partner to deploy the satellite infrastructure, with Apple covering 95% of the costs of building and launching the new satellites necessary to support satellite connectivity on the iPhone 14.
This isn’t something Apple is doing on a whim, either. It’s been years in the making. In 2017, Apple hired away two satellite engineers from Google parent company Alphabet, and by late 2019, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman revealed that Apple had ramped up the hiring of aerospace, satellite, and antenna design engineers, with the aim of deploying its first satellites within five years.
Nobody was entirely sure what Apple was up to at the time. Some speculated that Apple would launch its own satellite constellation. Others felt the company would take the more conservative approach of tying into existing satellite networks or possibly partnering with a big satellite maker like Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, or Boeing to piggyback its communication systems on existing satellites.
Considering how much Apple likes to control all the aspects of any solution it develops, it’s not surprising that the company has opted to deploy its own satellites. However, it seems unlikely that Apple is spending this kind of money solely to power an emergency SOS feature that, while valuable, will hopefully be rarely used.
Nevertheless, Emergency SOS via satellite is an ideal way for Apple to roll out and test its satellite network without putting too much demand on it. Apple has also added satellite location reporting for the Find My network, which allows iPhone 14 owners to try the feature out even when they’re not in dire straits.
The future of iPhone satellite connectivity
It’s highly likely Apple has much bigger plans for its satellite constellation and that this is simply the first stage.
Joe Maring/Digital Trends
While Apple doesn’t typically iterate and test new things in the public eye, getting real-world experience with iPhone satellite communications in a lab is pretty difficult. So, Apple is taking baby steps with smaller features that will allow it to study and slowly overcome some of the challenges inherent in satellite communications – and there’s no shortage of challenges to overcome.
Modern sci-fi movies have led folks to believe that satellite communications should be quick and easy, but nothing could be further from the truth. As Apple’s Kaiann Drance explained during the iPhone 14 launch event, “connecting to satellite presents an entirely new set of challenges” for the iPhone.
Communication satellites are hundreds of miles above the earth, moving thousands of miles per hour. While we don’t have any specs on the Apple/Globalstar satellites, the Iridium constellation comprises 66 satellites orbiting at 485 miles above Earth at 17,000 miles per hour.
To put that in perspective, cellular service runs over distances of less than 10 miles away from the nearest tower.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends
Due to the distances and speeds involved, “the bandwidth is so limited that even sending a text message is a technical challenge,” Drance added. “Typically, the only way to tap into such a network is with an expensive device that uses a bulky external antenna.”
Since there was no way Apple would put a massive antenna on the iPhone 14, it put its best engineers to work on building custom components and specific software to help users lock on to a satellite signal. This requires line of sight to a satellite that the naked eye can’t see, so the iPhone software interface has to guide the user through holding up their device and aiming it in the right direction.
As things stand today, the iPhone 14 isn’t ready to handle a full-service text, data, and voice service via satellite. Bandwidth constraints mean that a single short text message can take 15 seconds to send even under ideal conditions, and in some cases, that can be as long as two or three minutes. That’s even factoring in the special compression algorithms that Apple designed to shrink text messages down to a third of their normal size.
Using satellites for short emergency messages also alleviates bandwidth concerns. Apple can deploy fewer satellites and not worry about overloading them. Apple could sell as many as 100 million iPhones this year, but relatively few of these will even try to reach out to one of Apple’s satellites, and when they do, they’ll be exchanging only the tiniest pieces of data.
Apple also has to consider battery life. If you think using 5G cellular data drains your battery fast, imagine the power it takes to reach a satellite that’s hundreds of miles in orbit. Nevertheless, it’s not hard t