Next time you’re out in the middle of nowhere and realize you need to send a text but don’t have any service, you might be able to turn to the sky, where low-Earth satellites can help broadcast an SOS regardless of what device you’re using.
The iPhone 14 from last year was the first to include new satellite messaging capabilities, and it was designed as an emergency calling system. The concept is simple: just send a text to authorities after aiming your phone at the sky and aligning it with a satellite in the sky. GPS coordinates can also be transmitted.
Now that word has spread, other firms are gearing up to join the fray, expanding the use of satellite texting to new heights in the mobile industry.
“I think 2023 is certainly shaping up to be the year of mobile satellite connectivity,” said Avi Greengart, an analyst at research firm Techsponential. “Everyone’s doing it. Everyone is doing it differently.”
A satellite texting app plus an additional satellite radio on the phone won’t do the trick, unfortunately. The operation and upkeep of low Earth orbiting satellite systems is expensive, much like cellular data and phone networks.
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However, Apple has not specified what will happen after the initial two years of free emergency service access. It’s possible that customers will have to pay for access to other satellite texting services, which have not yet started.
The potential benefits of this technology are not up for debate. Instances, where it saved people’s lives, have already been reported to us. The big question is, of course, whether or not anyone would pay for it. If not, do you think satellite texting will fizzle out as 3D television has?
Until now, satellite technology on mobile phones was reserved for use in dire situations and was only available in high-end devices like Apple’s iPhone 14, which starts at $799. As a result, technology is currently a luxury item that the majority of smartphone users won’t be able to enjoy for some time.
Nabila Popal, director of research at IDC, is one of those who hopes she never finds herself in a scenario where she needs this capability but can’t access a signal. I haven’t gone a day without cell service in years, Popal declared.
Popal does not think having satellite texting would influence consumers’ decision between different phones because of its limited utility. Hikers in the wilderness, drag racers in the desert, and truckers on long hauls will all find this useful. However, for the rest of the population, this is not a must-have addition.
Introducing iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 Plus. In five fantastic colors and two great sizes, Big (6.1”) and Bigger (6.7”).
— Apple (@Apple) November 3, 2022
In reality, it’s just another impressive feature of today’s smartphones, which have already combined numerous technology that formerly had to be carried separately (such as cameras and handheld video games) into a single device.
Present Developments in Satellite Texting
When characters need to make calls from the middle of the ocean, satellite phones have been featured in movies for decades, beginning with Steven Seagal’s classic military thriller Under Siege (1992). In Jurassic Park III (2001), a satellite phone was instrumental in rescuing the hostages from the dinosaur-infested island.
The real-world equivalents may not be as thrilling, but they can be just as useful. Telephone signals are transmitted to the ground via networks of dozens of satellites that orbit the Earth once every 90 minutes or so.
Iridium was the first of these systems to go live in 1998; since then, a dozen other satellite networks have thrived by providing connectivity to frequent travelers. However, the concept has recently gained traction thanks to Elon Musk’s rocket startup SpaceX, which has borrowed the idea to blanket the globe with internet access with its Starlink initiative.
You can still receive satellite phone service, but it requires you to buy a large, nearly $900 feature phone and pay a premium of at least $50 for 5 minutes of call time to businesses that own their own private network of satellites.
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Smartphone radios are now good enough to communicate with satellites directly, rather than relying on a separate (and usually large) antenna, therefore phone manufacturers are incorporating the ability to use those orbital networks to deliver emergency SMS.
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.
Apple’s iPhone 14 series was the industry’s first from a major manufacturer. GlobalStar, the company’s chosen partner, has spotty coverage across the United States, Europe, Australia, and even South America. Apple has promised new iPhone 14 customers two years of service at no extra cost, but it is only activated in a small number of countries across three continents and only for emergency texts sent outside (it won’t reach deep within buildings).
Qualcomm said earlier this month that Android phones will soon have the ability to transmit and receive text messages via satellite. Qualcomm claims it will have global coverage thanks to the Iridium network, which is more than can be said for Apple’s services.
Snapdragon Satellite is an emergency-only service that will soon allow social messaging and broadband access (presumably as part of a paid upgrade). However, Qualcomm is leaving it up to individual phone manufacturers to decide whether or not to include the service in their devices and whether or not to charge for access to it once it becomes accessible in the second half of 2023. Since then, much has remained unclear.
There are also specialist manufacturers, such as Bullitt, which stated at CES 2023 that it will sell a Motorola-branded rugged phone using a MediaTek CPU in the first quarter of 2023. Through its connectivity partner Skylo, which rents out space on preexisting satellite constellations, Bullitt claims to offer two-way satellite messaging.
Huawei’s Mate 50 series of phones, which include satellite texting through China’s BeiDou satellite network, were released a day before Apple’s iPhone 14 was introduced. The big US carriers have all chosen their own satellite partners to eventually give mobile service beyond their networks’ edges, though none has a set launch date as of yet.
More individual phones with their own ideas for satellite messaging are expected to follow. According to analysts, everybody is participating in this race because they recognize the importance of offering satellite safety nets to their customers.
Apple could easily incorporate it into its existing subscription offerings, such as Apple TV Plus ($7 per month), Apple Music Plus ($10 per month), and the Apple One bundle ($17 per month). Providers may utilize this as an incentive for their most expensive subscription plans, gambling that risk-averse customers will pay more for security.
“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 There Anything Negative About Becoming the Hottest New Thing in Mobile Technology?
Naturally, the telecommunications sector has not exactly excelled in adopting cutting-edge innovations. Coverage has been inconsistent, and sometimes speeds are as poor as the 4G LTE service we’ve had for years, which has led many analysts to view the last couple of years of transition to 5G wireless as a disappointment.
Because it is dependent on satellite availability and the as-yet-untested strain of having numerous people transmitting help requests through them, satellite texting may be much more unstable than 5G was.
However, initial indicators are encouraging. To demonstrate the functionality of its Snapdragon Satellite feature at CES 2023, Qualcomm brought journalists on a field trip outside of Las Vegas.
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Anyone can test it out for themselves without actually sending an emergency message by activating the feature’s demo mode in the phone’s settings. Using satellites to strengthen cell networks and keep people in touch seems like the next logical step in this direction.
Even though most people will never have to use it, this feature serves as a safety net for those who do, whether it’s disaster survivors after mobile networks go down or intrepid phone users who venture beyond cell tower range. One man who was stuck on a snow machine in Alaska, well north of the Arctic Circle, was able to call for help using his iPhone 14, which proves the capability works.
In yet another incident, a couple lost their footing in the Los Angeles jungle and fell into a deep canyon, where they used an iPhone to signal for rescue. They were rescued in just 30 minutes. Los Angeles County Sheriff Sgt. John Gilbert told The Los Angeles Times that nobody would have known to look for them if it weren’t for the iPhone’s satellite texting feature.
It used to be that if you wanted to go somewhere outside of the range of cellular networks you had to buy one of those huge, cumbersome satellite phones. It won’t be long before most smartphones feature an emergency call function, which will come in handy whether you’re lost in the woods or being chased by dinosaurs on a deserted island.
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Frequently asked questions
What is innovative about iPhone 14?
The iPhone 14 Pro and 14 Pro Max are the only iPhones in the line to provide truly groundbreaking new features including an always-on display, a 48-megapixel camera, and the Dynamic Island. With so many similarities to the iPhone 13, the iPhone 14 is probably not going to seem all that appealing to someone who is currently using an iPhone 13.
What will be the features of iPhone 14?
In order to take brighter selfies and have clearer FaceTime video chats, Apple increased the front-facing camera on the iPhone 14 to 12 megapixels with an f/1.9 aperture. It's the first to have focusing, which vastly increases image quality, and it's twice as good at taking selfies in dim light.