What will satellite-connected phones do for us? Not much, for now


Apple’s Emergency SOS via satellite feature represents a first step toward bringing satellite features to cellphones. Arriving in November in the US and Canada, Emergency SOS via satellite allows users of iPhone 14 models to send texts to and receive texts from emergency services from remote places without a clunky antenna or additional tools. — AP

Making calls from the wilderness. Sending photos from the most remote corners of the globe. And doing it all from your cellphone.

That is the promise of the satellite-based future. But don’t expect it soon.

Major telecom and tech companies such as Apple Inc are starting to roll out features – like text messaging, SOS alerts and location tracking – that work with current or next-generation cellphones instead of relying on satellite-messaging tools.

But users should manage their expectations.

The first version of this technology is a big step forward for cellphones – but it likely won’t give us the “always connected” life people dream about.

Bandwidth constraints and tiny antennas inside the phones mean the capabilities of mobile devices will be limited.

Then there are immediate issues: Devices have to have a clear view of the satellite to work, which could make the connectivity less effective in hilly areas or places with other tall structures.

Decades of satellite chat

The technology for satellite calling has existed for decades – just not for regular cellphones.

Satellite phones first hit the market in 1998, weighing about a pound and standing a foot tall with their antenna extended. They cost about US$3,000, plus anywhere from US$3 to US$20 a minute for calls.

That was a steep price for the average consumer, but proved very useful for military personnel, journalists and other people who spend significant time in remote environments.

Today’s satellite phones and communication tools come in a variety of forms for users to buy or rent. Then there are satellite devices that pair with a conventional cellphone to deliver messages, such as the US$300 (RM1,421) inReach Messenger that Garmin recently introduced.

Subscriptions for the device, which weighs a quarter of a pound and can fit in the palm of your hand, range from US$14.95 (RM70) a month to US$64.95 (RM307) a month.

Wes Siler owns Garmin’s inReach Mini, another satellite-communication device that pairs with his smartphone for off-the-grid texting. His plan comes with unlimited messaging, but it doesn’t let him make calls.

Instead, the 41-year-old adventure-travel writer from Bozeman, Montana, prefers to rent a satellite phone for about US$200 for a two-week trip.

“I rent a sat phone only in rare circumstances where being able to make voice calls may be essential to arrange logistics or to coordinate rescue efforts in particularly risky circumstances,” Siler says.

He adds, “Buying a friend dinner afterward to come pull me out of a mud pit is a whole lot cheaper than calling a helicopter.”

New options

Apple’s Emergency SOS via satellite feature represents a first step toward bringing satellite features to cellphones.

Arriving in November in the US and Canada, Emergency SOS via satellite allows users of iPhone 14 models to send texts to and receive texts from emergency services from remote places without a clunky antenna or additional tools. Users can’t send messages to anyone else, however, or receive them.

The capability, built into the phones, directs users where to point their phone to stay connected to the best satellite. It also lets people share their location with emergency contacts and share a transcript of the messages they send to emergency services, including a map and a short description of the nature of their problem.

Apple says the service is free for two years. It hasn’t detailed what it will charge afterward.

The satellite SOS feature is the only reason 25-year-old Mack Hogan is considering upgrading his iPhone 12 to the iPhone 14.

Between his job as an automotive journalist and his hobby visiting national parks, he spends a lot of time in remote locales.

Not having a satellite device handy has limited his plans – he never wants to venture to where he can’t get help.

Hogan says that he will likely rent or buy an additional satellite-communication device anyway.

“Redundancy is key, especially if Apple’s offering has bugs to work out when it launches,” he says.

“If you’re deep in the backcountry and you break your leg or something, you don’t want something that you’re pretty sure is going to work,” Hogan says. “You need a guarantee that it’s going to work.”

Filling the sky

Other phone manufacturers are stepping up to offer satellite services as well.

Huawei’s Mate 50 series gives users in mainland China the ability to send short texts to other people via satellite using China’s global Beidou satellite network. Users can’t receive texts, though, because of technical limitations.

Iridium announced earlier this year that it had an agreement to develop its technology for use in smartphones.

Hiroshi Lockheimer, Google’s senior vice-president of platforms and ecosystems, said on Twitter that the company’s next version of Android would also support communications with satellites.

SpaceX and T-Mobile, meanwhile, plan to create a satellite-to-cellular service to provide connectivity in wireless dead zones, but the first iteration, expected late next year, will allow only text messaging.

Their plan involves embedding cellular technology into satellites – rather than the other way around – so that users can use existing phones with the service.

SpaceX’s Starlink satellites would then provide connectivity to US customers via airwaves controlled by T-Mobile.

With this technology, T-Mobile users could send text messages and even photos from anywhere that was previously unreachable by terrestrial networks, a T-Mobile spokeswoman says.

The aim is for satellite texting to launch toward the end of 2023, she says. Voice and data would be available later.

Other companies, such as satellite startups Lynk Global and AST SpaceMobile, are following a similar approach.

Some analysts say Apple has an advantage in the satellite competition through its deal with Globalstar.

The agreement gives Apple 85% of the network capacity of all of Globalstar’s satellites, which cover 80% of the world.

If it wants to expand its offerings – such as letting users message each other when they lack cell service – Apple may have to shell out US$1 billion to US$2 billion more for a bigger constellation of satellites, some analysts say.

“That’s going to be one of the barriers here – whether there’s enough money in this to go beyond just these simple services,” says Tim Farrar, president of satellite consulting firm TMF Associates.

Apple declines to comment on third-party speculation about its plans. However, a Globalstar spokesman says that analysts have it wrong.

“The current satellite and ground network architecture can support whatever Apple decides to offer,” the spokesman says, adding, “The total capacity of the satellite network... is extraordinarily large for these types of data transmission.”

As for where all those plans will go, some analysts are cautiously optimistic.

“Technology development is going to start out slow... and it gets better and better,” says Walter Piecyk, an analyst at LightShed Partners, a technology, media and telecommunications research firm.

“I’m a little sceptical about how far it can go, but there’s certainly plenty of incremental opportunities.” – Bangkok Post, Thailand/Tribune News Service

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