The next time you need to send a text when you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, no matter what device you have, you can look to the sky where low-Earth satellites can help you send an SOS.

Last year, Apple became the first tech company to offer new satellite text capabilities to its devices with the iPhone 14. system to call for help in case of emergency. The idea is simple enough: point your phone at the sky, line it up with an overhead satellite, and send a text to the authorities. You can even send GPS data too.

Now, other companies are getting ready to jump on board, making satellite messaging a new frontier for the phone world.

“I think 2023 is definitely shaping up to be the year of mobile satellite connectivity,” said Avi Greengart, an analyst at research firm Techsponential. “Everybody does it. Everybody does it differently.”

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as adding a satellite text app and an extra satellite radio to the phone. Low Earth orbit satellite systems, like mobile Internet and telephone systems, cost money to operate and maintain. Apple said it would give iPhone owners free access to emergency services for two years after purchasing their device, but He did not say what would happen next. Other satellite messaging systems have yet to launch and will apparently charge users for the privilege.

There is no debate as to whether or not this technology will be useful. We have already heard stories of people’s lives being saved thanks to it. The question is whether people are willing to pay for it. Or, will satellite messages become another fad like 3D TV?

Currently, satellite technology in our phones is only for emergencies and only on expensive smartphones like the Apple iPhone 14, which starts at $799. This makes the technology a nice feature that the wider population of phone owners won’t be able to use for a while. Those who do can never get into trouble without a signal about when the feature will come into play — a group that IDC research director Nabila Popal herself counts. “I can’t remember the last time there was no cell service,” Popal said.

Given the niche use of satellite messaging, Popal doesn’t believe it will push consumers to switch from one phone to another. It will certainly appeal to mountain hikers, desert drag racers, and long-distance truckers who plan to go beyond cellular networks. But for everyone, this isn’t an important enough feature to rush out to buy.

Instead, it’s more like another feather in the cap of modern smartphones, which bundle together many other technologies we used to have to carry separately in our bags, like cameras and handheld video games.

For the Snapdragon Satellite feature, Qualcomm went with satellite communications provider Iridium, a constellation of 66 orbiting satellites with global coverage.


Current status of satellite texts

Satellite phones have been featured in movies like Steven Seagal’s classic 1992 military thriller for decades. Under siege when you need to call someone from the middle of the ocean. The satellite phone also played an important role in sending people away an island full of dinosaurs In 2001 Jurassic Park III.

“Where’s the phone? Take the phone!” exclaims veteran dino survivor Alan Grant The Spinosaurus almost slips off the boat and into the river during its attack. (Spoiler, she catches him at the last moment and is able to signal for help.)

The real-life versions aren’t as interesting, but they can be just as useful. They use networks of dozens of satellites that orbit the Earth every 90 minutes to transmit phone signals to Earth. It was the first of these systems iridiumLaunched in 1998, dozens of other satellite networks have survived to provide connectivity to frequent travelers, but the prospect has recently become popular after Elon Musk’s rocket startup SpaceX took up the idea of ​​covering the world with Internet coverage through its Starlink program.

You can still get satellite phone coverage by buying a large feature phone that costs about $900 and paying a premium of at least $50 for 5 minutes of call time for service from companies that own a private satellite network. But phone makers are developing the ability to use these orbital networks to send emergency texts as smartphone radios have improved enough to communicate directly with satellites instead of relying on a separate and often large antenna.

Anshel Sag, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, says phone radios “have gotten so good now that you can set up a satellite connection to the phone without needing an external antenna.”

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I tested Emergency SOS via Satellite on my iPhone 14

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Apple was the first among the main smartphone manufacturers iPhone 14 line. The company partners with GlobalStar, which covers the United States, Europe, Australia and limited parts of South America. Apple only enables this feature in a few countries on those continents, and that’s it only works for urgent text messages made outdoors (it won’t go deep into buildings), but the company has promised that new iPhone 14 owners will get two years of service when they buy the phone.

Earlier this month, Qualcomm revealed a new feature coming to Android phones allow users to send and receive text messages through satellites. It uses the Iridium network, and Qualcomm says it will have global coverage, more than Apple’s services.

The service, called Snapdragon Satellite, will be launched only for emergencies, but will eventually be able to share messages socially and even use data, possibly as part of a premium service. It’s not available yet, and will be available in the second half of 2023 on phones using Qualcomm’s latest premium chips, though the company is leaving it up to phone makers whether they’ll have the service on their phones at all or whether they’ll have to pay for the privilege. . That leaves a lot of unknowns.

And there are smaller players like Bullitt with their own niche devices Motorola has announced its rugged phone It is powered by a MediaTek chipset that will be launched at CES 2023 in the first quarter of 2023 with an undisclosed price tag. Bullitt promises two-way satellite text through communications partner Skylo, which leases time in existing satellite constellations. Huawei actually launched the Mate 50 series of phones with satellite text A day before Apple’s iPhone 14 debut via China’s BeiDou satellite network, Huawei’s coverage has declined over the years.

More individual phones with their own ideas for satellite messaging are likely to come, and the major US carriers have chosen their satellite partners to eventually offer mobile service beyond their own networks, though none have a firm release date yet. .

Analysts say everyone is in the race because they can see the potential value of providing satellite security networks as a service. Apple could easily bundle it alongside subscription services, such as the $7-a-month Apple TV Plus, $10-a-month Apple Music Plus, or $17-a-month Apple One bundle. Carriers can use it to sweeten the deal for their most expensive subscription plans, betting that risk-averse people are willing to pay extra. for peace. “It’s hard to overstate how important it is to tell someone you’re out of gas in the middle of the Gobi Desert or Death Valley or the Adirondacks,” Techsponential’s Greengart said.

iPhone 14 showing a text conversation with emergency dispatchers

The text message interface of Apple’s Emergency SOS feature.

Kevin Heinz/CNET

Is being the new phone trend a bad thing?

Of course, the phone industry doesn’t have the best track record with new technologies. Analysts take a broad look at the last few years of the transition to 5G wireless to give upespecially since coverage is spotty and speeds are sometimes as slow as the 4G LTE service we’ve been using for years.

Satellite messaging may be more challenging than 5G, particularly because it depends on the availability of satellites and the untested strain of having large numbers of people relaying help requests through them.

Still, early signs look promising. At CES 2023, Qualcomm took journalists outside of Las Vegas to test the Snapdragon Satellite feature, and it worked. CNET phone editor Patrick Holland Tested Apple’s Emergency SOS feature on the iPhone 14 and found that it works — in fact, thanks to a demo mode in the phone’s settings, anyone can try it without sending an urgent message.

This looks like the next frontier — using satellites to power cellular networks and keep people connected. Even if most people never need it, this feature still acts as a safety net to help more adventurous phone users who venture beyond cell towers after cellular networks fail or survive a disaster.

Some iPhone 14 owners, including one, have reportedly already been rescued thanks to the stranded feature. snowmobile travel Above the Arctic Circle in Alaska. In another case, a couple fell into a deep canyon in the Los Angeles forest and I used my iPhone to send for help. It was possible to save them in less than 30 minutes. Without the iPhone’s satellite messaging feature, emergency services wouldn’t have been contacted and “nobody would have known to look for them,” Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Sgt. John Gilbert told the Los Angeles Times.

We’ve come a long way from needing to buy big, cumbersome satellite phones if we want to go safely beyond the confines of cellular networks. Soon, many smartphones will be able to call for help, whether you’ve taken a wrong turn in the desert or been attacked by dinosaurs on a remote island.

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