The iPhone 14 award feature kicked off the biggest phone trend of 2023

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

Last year, Apple became the first technology company to bring new satellite text messaging capabilities to its devices, introducing it with the iPhone 14 as a system for calling for help in emergencies. The idea is pretty easy: point your phone at the sky, align it with a satellite passing overhead, and send a text message to the authorities. You can even send GPS data too.

Now, other companies are ready to join in, making satellite text messaging a new frontier for the world of telephony.

“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 is doing it. Everyone is doing it differently.”

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as adding a satellite texting app and additional satellite radio to your phone. Low Earth orbit satellite systems cost money to operate and maintain, just like cellular internet and phone systems. Apple has said it will give iPhone owners free access to emergency services for two years after they buy their device, but he didn’t say what happens next. Other satellite text messaging systems have yet to launch and seem likely to charge users for the privilege.

There is no debate about whether this technology can be useful. We have already heard stories of lives of people who were saved thanks to this. The question is whether people are willing to pay for it. And if not, will satellite text messaging just be another fad, like 3D TV?

Currently, satellite technology on our phones is only for emergencies and only on expensive smartphones like Apple’s iPhone 14, which starts at $799. That makes the technology a nice feature that the broader population of phone owners won’t have access to for some time. Those who do may never end up in dire straits without a sign of when the feature would be useful, a group which includes IDC research director Nabila Popal. “I can’t remember the last time I didn’t have cell service,” Popal said.

Given the niche use of satellite text messages, Popal doesn’t think having them will influence consumers to buy one phone over another. It will certainly appeal to hikers, desert trail runners, and remote truckers who plan to go beyond cellular networks. But, for everyone else, it’s not a big enough feature to rush to buy.

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

For its Snapdragon Satellite feature, Qualcomm chose satellite communications provider Iridium, which has a constellation of 66 orbiting satellites with global coverage.


The current state of satellite text messaging

Satellite phones have been around for decades, appearing in movies as far back as Steven Seagal’s classic 1992 military thriller. under victories every time someone needs to make calls from the middle of the ocean. A satellite phone also played a key role in keeping people away. dinosaur infested island in 2001 jurassic park iii.

“Where’s the phone? Pick up the phone!” shouts veteran dinosaur survivor Alan Grant as he almost slips from a boat into a river during a Spinosaurus attack. (Spoilers, he grabs it at the last minute and can call for help.)

The real life versions aren’t as exciting, but they can be just as useful. They use networks of dozens of satellites that orbit the Earth every 90 minutes or so to transmit phone signals to the ground. The first of these systems was iridiumwhich launched its service in 1998 and a dozen other satellite networks have survived by offering connectivity to frequent flyers, but the prospect caught on recently after Elon Musk’s rocket startup SpaceX borrowed the idea of ​​circling the globe with Internet coverage through its Starlink program.

You can still get satellite phone coverage by buying a nearly $900 bulky feature phone and paying a premium of at least $50 for 5 minutes of airtime for service from companies that own a private satellite network. But phone makers are adding the ability to use those orbital networks for emergency texting because smartphone radios have gotten good enough to communicate directly with satellites, instead of relying on a separate antenna. , and often large.

Telephone radios “have gotten so good now that you can build satellite connectivity into a phone without the need for an external antenna,” said Anshel Sag, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy.

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I tried Emergency SOS via satellite on the iPhone 14


Among the major smartphone manufacturers, Apple was first with its iPhone 14 line. The company has partnered with GlobalStar, which has limited coverage of the US, Europe, Australia, and limited parts of South America. Apple only turns this feature on in a handful of countries on those continents, and only works for emergency text messages done outside (it won’t go deep into buildings), but the company has promised new iPhone 14 owners get two years of service included when they buy the phone.

Earlier this month, Qualcomm revealed a new feature on Android phones that allow users to 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 say.

The service, called Snapdragon Satellite, will only be for emergencies, but you’ll eventually be able to message socially and even use data, likely as part of a premium service. It’s not available yet and will come on phones launching in the second half of 2023 that use Qualcomm’s latest premium chips, though the company is leaving it up to phone makers whether they have the service on their phones or if they should. charge for the privilege. . That leaves many 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 Q1 2023 for an undisclosed price. Bullitt promises two-way satellite text messaging through connectivity partner Skylo, which leases time on existing satellite constellations. Huawei launched its Mate 50 series of phones with satellite text messages via China’s BeiDou satellite network a day before the debut of Apple’s iPhone 14, though Huawei’s reach has dwindled over the years.

More individual phones with their own satellite texting ideas are likely to follow, and the big US carriers have selected their own satellite partners to eventually offer mobile services beyond the boundaries of their networks, though none have a firm release date yet.

Everyone is in the race because they can see the potential value of providing satellite network security as a service, analysts say. Apple could easily add it alongside its subscription services, like $7-per-month Apple TV Plus, $10-per-month Apple Music Plus, or $17 Apple One. Carriers could use it to sweeten the deal on older subscription plans. expensive, betting that the risk averse among us are willing to pay more. for peace of mind. “It’s hard to overstate how important it is to tell someone they ran out of fuel in the middle of the Gobi Desert or Death Valley or the Adirondacks,” said Techsponential’s Greengart.

An iPhone 14 showing a text conversation with emergency dispatchers

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

Kevin Heinz/CNET

Is it bad to be the new trend in phones?

Of course, the phone industry doesn’t have the best track record with new technologies. Analysts widely consider the last two years of transition to 5G wireless technology have been a disappointmentparticularly since coverage has been patchy and speeds are sometimes as slow as the 4G LTE service we’ve had for years.

Satellite texting could be even trickier than 5G, especially since it depends on the availability of satellites and the as-yet-untested stress of having many people broadcast requests for help through them.

Still, the early signs look promising. At CES 2023, Qualcomm took journalists out of Las Vegas to test its Snapdragon Satellite feature, and it worked. CNET Phones Editor Patrick Holland tested Apple’s Emergency SOS feature on your iPhone 14 and found out 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 to be the next frontier: using satellites to bolster mobile networks and keep people in touch. Even if most people will never have the misfortune of needing it, the feature still acts as a safety net, helping more adventurous phone users who wander past cell towers or disaster survivors after they Mobile networks fail.

Some iPhone 14 owners have reportedly already been saved thanks to the feature, including a man stranded when ride a snow machine in Alaska above the Arctic Circle. In another case, a couple fell into a deep canyon in a Los Angeles forest and used an iPhone to call for help. In less than 30 minutes, they were rescued. Without the iPhone’s satellite text messaging feature, emergency services would not have been contacted and “no one would have known to look for them,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s 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 safely venture beyond the reach of cellular networks. Soon enough, 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 you should have stayed away from.

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