If you ever find yourself in a situation where you need to send a message but are stuck somewhere, it is possible to look up to the sky. Low-Earth satellites may be able help you send an SOS.
Apple was the first company to introduce satellite texting capabilities to its phones last year. It introduced it with the iPhone 14 to help people in emergency situations. The concept is simple enough: Just point your phone towards the sky, align it with a satellite passing overhead, and send a notification to authorities. You can also send GPS data.
Satellite texting is now a major new frontier in the world of mobile phones.
Avi Greengart, an analyst with Techsponential, stated that 2023 “is certainly shaping up as the year of mobile satellite communication.” “Everyone is doing this. Everybody is doing it differently.
Unfortunately, this is not as simple as adding an extra satellite radio and a texting app to the phone. Like cellular internet and phone system, low-earth orbiting satellite systems are expensive to operate and maintain. Apple claims it will give iPhone owners unlimited access to emergency services for the first two years of their purchase, but has not said what happens afterwards. Satellite texting systems aren’t yet available and may charge for users.
It’s clear that this technology has the potential to be very useful. It has already saved lives. It is up to the people whether they are willing and able to pay for it. Satellite texting will be a fad if they don’t.
Satellite tech on smartphones is limited to emergencies, and only in the most expensive phones like Apple’s iPhone 14 (which starts at $799). This makes satellite tech a desirable feature that not all phone owners will have access to. Even though they may not be in dire situations, those who do have access to the technology could find themselves in one. Nabila Popal, IDC research director, is among these people. Popal stated that she can’t recall when the last time she didn’t have cell phone service.
Popal believes that satellite messaging is a niche application and doesn’t convince consumers to buy a phone over another. It will be a big hit with backcountry hikers as well as desert drag racers and remote truckers, who plan on traveling beyond cell phone networks. It’s not a feature that everyone should rush to purchase.
It’s actually just one more thing that modern smartphones have done to make it easier to transport other technologies in your bag, such as cameras and video games.
The current status of satellite texting
Satellite phones have been around for decades and are featured in movies such as Steven Seagal’s 1992 military thriller Under Siege. Satellite phones were also crucial in the escape of Jurassic Park III’s dinosaur-infested island.
“Where is the phone?” Grab the phone! Alan Grant, a Spinosaurus attack survivor, shouts at the phone as the dino nearly falls off a boat into a stream. (Spoilers: he grabs the dino at the last moment and is able signal for help.
While they may not be as exciting as the virtual ones, they can still be very helpful. The satellites orbit the Earth each 90 minutes and relay phone signals to ground. This was the first of these systems. IridiumIt launched its service in 1998. Twelve other satellite networks survived to offer connectivity to frequent travelers. But the idea gained popularity recently when SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rocket startup, borrowed the idea to cover the entire globe with internet coverage via its Starlink program.
If you purchase a feature phone that is nearly $900, you can still receive satellite phone coverage. You will need to pay a premium of $50 for five minutes of service time from companies with a private satellite network. Smartphone radios are now able to directly communicate with satellites and send emergency text messages.
Phone radios have “gotten so good now that you can build satellite connectivity into a phone without needing an external antenna,” said Anshel Sag, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy.
Among mainstream smartphone makers, Apple was the first with its iPhone 14 line. The company partnered with GlobalStar, which has limited coverage of the US, Europe, Australia and limited parts of South America. Apple only activates this feature in a handful of countries in those continents, and it only works for emergency text messages made outside (it won’t reach deep within buildings), but the company pledged that new iPhone 14 owners get two years of service included when they buy the phone.
Earlier this month, Qualcomm revealed a new feature coming in Android phones that will let users send and receive text messages through satellites. It uses the Iridium network and Qualcomm says it will have global coverage, which is more than Apple’s services says.
The service, called Snapdragon Satellite, will only be for emergencies to start but will eventually be able to exchange messages socially and even use data, likely as part of a premium service. It’s not available yet and will come in phones launching in the second half of 2023 that use Qualcomm’s latest premium chips, though the company is leaving it up to phonemakers whether to have the service at all in their phones or if they should charge for the privilege. That leaves lots of unknowns.
And there are smaller players with their own niche devices, like Bullitt, which announced its Motorola-branded rugged phone powered by a MediaTek chipset at CES 2023 that will launch in the first quarter of 2023 for an undisclosed price tag. Bullitt promises two-way satellite texting through connectivity partner Skylo, which leases time on existing satellite constellations. Huawei actually launched its Mate 50 series of phones with satellite texting through China’s BeiDou satellite network a day ahead of Apple’s iPhone 14 debuted, though Huawei’s reach has diminished over the years.
More individual phones coming out with their own ideas of satellite texting will likely follow, and the big US carriers have all selected their own satellite partners to eventually offer mobile service beyond their networks’ edges, though none has a firm launch date yet.
Everyone’s in on the race because they can see the potential value of providing satellite safety nets as a service, analysts say. Apple could easily add it alongside its subscription services, like the $7 per month Apple TV Plus, $10 per month Apple Music Plus or $17 Apple One bundle. Carriers could use it to sweeten the deal for the priciest subscription plans, betting that the risk-averse among us are willing to pay extra for peace of mind. “It’s hard to overstate how important telling someone you’re out of gas in the middle of the Gobi Desert or Death Valley or the Adirondacks is,” Techsponential’s Greengart said.
Is it a bad thing to be the new phone trend?
Of course, the phone industry doesn’t have the best track record with new technologies. Analysts broadly consider the last couple years of transition to 5G wireless to have been a letdown, particularly because coverage has been spotty and speeds are sometimes as slow as the 4G LTE service we’ve had for years.
Satellite texting could be even more finicky than 5G was, particularly because it depends on the availability of satellites and the yet-untested strain of having many people relaying help requests through them.
Still, early signs seem promising. At CES 2023, Qualcomm took journalists outside Las Vegas to test its Snapdragon Satellite feature, and it worked. CNET phone editor Patrick Holland tested Apple’s Emergency SOS feature on his iPhone 14 and found that it worked — in fact, anyone can try it out without sending an emergency message thanks to a demo mode in the phone’s settings.
This seems like the next frontier — to use satellites to bolster mobile networks and keep people in contact. Even if most people will never have the misfortune to need it, the feature still acts as a safety net, helping the more adventurous phone users who wander beyond cell towers or disaster survivors after mobile networks fail.
Some iPhone 14 owners have reportedly been saved already thanks to the feature, including one man stranded when traveling by snow machine in Alaska above the Arctic Circle. In another case, a couple tumbled down into a deep canyon in a Los Angeles forest and used an iPhone to send for help. In less than 30 minutes, they were rescued. Without the iPhone’s satellite texting feature, emergency services wouldn’t have been contacted, and “nobody would have known to look for them,” Los Angeles County Sheriff Sgt. John Gilbert told The Los Angeles Times.
We’ve come a long way from needing to buy big, clunky satellite phones if we want to venture safely beyond the range of cell networks. Pretty soon, many smartphones will be able to call for help, whether you’ve taken a wrong turn in the wilderness or been attacked by dinosaurs on a remote island that you should have just stayed away from.
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