Earlier today, Apple announced that its new generation of phones, iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 Pro, will have the Emergency SOS feature. It will allow sending distress messages and sharing location by connecting directly to satellites. So, how exactly will it work?
Apple explains that the Emergency SOS feature will work when the user is outdoors and with a clear view of the sky. Apple also claims that under ideal conditions, a message should be sent in less than 15 seconds. With light foilage, it can take several minutes. Users will be prompted to point the phone towards the closest satellite with an interface similar to the Find My Phone.
Emergency SOS will be a paid service, but for now, all iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 Pro buyers will get a two-year subscription for free. The feature is set to go live in November, so for now, we have rather limited technical information about it.
Satellite connectivity will also be a feature exclusive to iPhone 14 generation, as it uses custom hardware and software solutions. Meaning that there are special antennas incorporated in the iPhone 14 design that is different from the usual GSM module providing connectivity like 5G.
Which Satellites Is Apple Using?
The satellite provider for Apple is Globalstar. It wasn’t specifically mentioned during the presentation, though. But Globalstar confirmed that it would allocate 85% of its current and future network capacity to support the Services.
Globalstar is operating a constellation of 48 satellites in LEO at 1414 km altitude. They are placed in eight orbital planes of six satellites, each with an inclination of 52°. This means they can provide service on Earth from 70° North latitude to 70° South latitude. Meaning the iPhone 14 satellite connectivity won’t work in polar regions.
Is Apple’s Satellite Connectivity Better Than Starlink?
Apple isn’t the first who announce direct-to-phone satellite connectivity. In the past, a company called Lynk demonstrated sending text messages to unmodified phones from LEO. But more importantly, just a few days ago, SpaceX and T-Mobile held a presentation where they announced that Starlink would provide direct-to-phone connectivity for T-Mobile clients in the near future. We covered this story in the latest episode of Space Bites. Of course, the timing just before the Apple announcement wasn’t a coincidence.
The main difference between Apple and Starlink is that the latter won’t be exclusive to specific iPhones. It will provide connectivity to any existing phone and won’t require any special hardware. However, it will have another kind of vendor-lock; as for now, the deal is exclusive to T-Mobile.
Another obvious thing is that GlobalStar will have much fewer satellites than Starlink. Meaning that the number of available satellites in direct view of the user will also be less at each given moment, thus limiting available bandwidth. An indirect proof of very limited bandwidth is the fact that Apple claims it will use a special protocol to compress text messages up to 3 times. Whereas T-Mobile and Starlink announced that they would achieve 2-4 megabits/s per cell with their service, which should be enough for text messages and limited phone calls.
At the same time, SpaceX’s solution will only work with Starlink V2 satellites. The problem is that they can only be launched with Starship, which is yet to become operational. Without Starship and SuperHeavy flying regularly and sending a bunch of new heavy Starlinks with much bigger antennas, the service won’t be able to function.
Yet Another Space Race?
It seems like we have yet another space race on our hands. With the progress in hardware and with more and more satellites launching every year, it seems like the market of satellite service providers that can communicate directly to phones is emerging. For now, it’s just Apple-Globalstar against SpaceX-T-Mobile, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see new players in the coming years. Will Jeff be joining the club with Project Kuiper?
It is also interesting how both companies (as well as their future competitors) will handle other problems. For example, getting licenses to operate worldwide can be a big issue that is not related just to hardware and software. For example, Apple’s UltraWide Band features aren’t available in some countries due to frequency restrictions. Starlink is also unavailable in certain countries for similar reasons. So, legal challenges can be as hard as hardware ones.
But it’s great that we have a new market with space technology directly involved. And it’s also really good that we don’t have a monopoly forming straight away. After all, having diverse technical solutions as well as competing service providers should be good for everyone.