Apple iPhone 14 will have emergency satellite connectivity

At its annual event today Apple announced that the new iPhone 14 will have emergency satellite connectivity. The service dubbed “Emergency SOS via Satellite” is a text message service to assist people who are in dire circumstances in remote areas with no regular cellular coverage.

As predicted, Apple is working with the satellite company Globalstar to offer the service, using Globalstar’s Band 53 spectrum. According to Reuters, Apple will pay for 95% of the approved capital expenditure for the new satellites needed to support the service.

Speaking at Apple’s event today, Kaiann Drance, Apple’s vice president of worldwide product marketing said, “While the iPhone is designed for a best-in-class cellular experience, connecting to satellite presents an entirely new set of challenges.”

Then she proceeded to lay out the challenges, which made it clear that offering a full-service text, data and voice service to regular cell phones via satellite will be a very daunting technical challenge.

Drance explained that communication satellites are hundreds of miles above the earth and flying at over 15,000 miles per hour. To connect to these satellites, you need to be outside with a clear view of the sky. “The bandwidth is so limited that even sending a text message is a technical challenge,” she said. “Typically, the only way to tap into such a network is with an expensive device that uses a bulky external antenna.”

Obviously, Apple didn’t want to create an iPhone with a giant 1990s-style antenna. Drance said, “So, we invented another way. We designed and built custom components and specific software so iPhone 14 antennas can connect to satellites’ unique frequencies. That connection is only possible when the phone is pointing directly at a satellite.”

But since satellites fly too high to be identified by the human eye, Apple had to create a user interface that shows people where to point the phone to establish a connection and stay connected as the satellite moves.

Once connected, the person in the emergency situation needs to send and receive enough information to get help. “Standard messaging protocols are not designed for satellites’ limited bandwidth,” said Drance. “So, we created a custom, short-text compression algorithm to reduce the average size of messages by a factor of three. Thanks to this algorithm it can take less than 15 seconds to send a message if you have a clear view of the sky. In other conditions such as light foliage, it may take a few minutes.”

In order to reduce the amount of back and forth between the person in the emergency situation and the emergency responder, Apple also worked with emergency experts to surface the questions they are most likely to ask. It then provides the most common responses for the phone user to chose from with just a few texts. “With fewer messages to write and send, you can get help quicker,” said Drance.

After the message is relayed to a ground station it needs to reach the right emergency service provider. If that emergency provider accepts text messages, Apple will connect the user directly. But if the emergency services center only accept voice calls, Apple has set up relay centers staffed with specialists ready to call an emergency services provider.

Drance’s explanation was a wake-up call as to how complicated it’s going to be to realize the dream of regular cell phones connecting to satellites for full text, data and voice services.

She said, “It took years to make this vision a reality through game-changing hardware, software and infrastructure innovation.”

New Street Research analyst Jonathan Chaplin wrote today, “Satellite-enabled text is a small step toward a much bigger opportunity. The killer application will be ubiquitous global voice and data connectivity enabled via satellites that work seamlessly with terrestrial cellular networks. This could be a $20 Billion+ annual opportunity in the U.S.”

For purchasers of the new iPhone 14, the emergency satellite service is free for the first two years.