The next time you need to text while you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, you might be able to look up to the sky, where Earth’s satellites can help send an SOS, regardless of device. that you own.
Apple last year became the first tech company to bring new satellite texting capabilities to its devices, introducing it with the iPhone 14 as a system to call for help in the event of an emergency. ’emergency. The idea is quite simple: point your phone at the sky, line it up with a satellite passing overhead, and text the authorities. You can even send GPS data too.
Now other companies are about to jump on board, making satellite texting 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. “Everyone does it. Everyone does it differently.”
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as adding a satellite texting app and additional satellite radio to the phone. Low Earth orbit satellite systems cost money to operate and maintain, as do internet and cell phone systems. Apple said it would give iPhone owners free access to emergency services for two years after purchasing their device, but it didn’t say what would happen after that. Other satellite texting systems have yet to launch and seem likely to charge users for the privilege.
There is no debate as to whether this technology can be useful. We have already heard stories of lives saved because of this. The question is whether people are willing to pay for it. And if not, will satellite texting be just another fad, like 3D TV?
Currently, satellite technology on our phones is only for emergencies and only in expensive smartphones like Apple’s iPhone 14, which starts at $799. This makes the technology a great feature that the wider population of phone owners won’t have access to for some time. Those who do may never find themselves in dire straits without a signal when the feature would be useful — a group that IDC’s research director, Nabila Popal, counts. “I can’t remember the last time I didn’t have cell service,” Popal said.
Given the niche use of satellite texting, Popal doesn’t believe this will drive consumers to buy one phone over another. It’s sure to appeal to backcountry hikers, desert drag racers, and remote truckers planning to head beyond cellular networks. But, for everyone, this is not a feature important enough to rush to buy.
Instead, it’s more of a feather in the hat of modern smartphones, which have already bundled together so many other technologies that we used to carry separately in our bags, such as cameras and video games. laptops.
The Current State of Satellite SMS
Satellite phones have been around for decades, appearing in films as far back as Steven Seagal’s 1992 classic military thriller Under Siege whenever someone needs to make calls from the middle of the ocean. A satellite phone also played a vital role in keeping people away from a dinosaur-infested island in 2001’s Jurassic Park III.
“Where’s the phone?” Take the phone! yells veteran dino survivor Alan Grant as he nearly slips off a boat and into a river during a Spinosaurus attack. (Spoilers, he catches it at the last minute and is able to signal for help.)
The actual versions aren’t as exciting, but they can be just as useful. They use networks of dozens of satellites orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes or so to relay telephone 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 travelers, but the prospect has become popular recently after Elon Musk’s rocket startup SpaceX borrowed the idea to surround the world with internet coverage through its Starlink program.
You can still get satellite phone coverage by buying a cumbersome feature phone for almost $900 and paying a premium of at least $50 for 5 minutes of calling for service from companies that own a private network of satellites. . But phone makers are boosting the ability to use these orbital networks to send emergency text messages, as smartphone radios have become good enough to communicate directly with satellites, instead of relying on a separate antenna – and often large -.
Phone radios have “gotten so good now that you can build satellite connectivity into a phone without needing an external antenna,” said Anshel Sag, analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy.
Among mainstream smartphone makers, Apple was first with its iPhone 14 line. The company has partnered with GlobalStar, which has limited coverage of the US, Europe, Australia and some parts of South America. Apple only enables this feature in a handful of countries on those continents, and it only works for emergency text messages sent outdoors (it won’t reach deep into buildings), but the company has committed that new iPhone 14 owners will get two years of service included when they buy the phone.
Earlier this month, Qualcomm unveiled a new feature coming to Android phones that will allow users to send and receive text messages via satellites. It uses the Iridium network and Qualcomm says it will have worldwide coverage, which is more than Apple’s services say.
The service, called Snapdragon Satellite, will only be used for emergencies, but will eventually be able to exchange messages socially and even use data, likely as part of a premium service. It’s not available yet and will come in phones launching in the second half of 2023 that use Qualcomm’s latest premium chips, although the company is leaving it up to phone makers to have the service at all in their phones or whether they have to charge for the lien. That leaves a lot of 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 is promising two-way satellite SMS through connectivity partner Skylo, which leases time on existing satellite constellations. Huawei actually launched its Mate 50 series of phones with satellite texting via China’s BeiDou satellite network a day before the launch of Apple’s iPhone 14, although Huawei’s reach has dwindled over the years.
Other individual phones with their own satellite SMS ideas are likely to follow, and the major US carriers have all selected their own satellite partners to eventually offer mobile service beyond the boundaries of their networks, although none have no firm launch date yet.
Everyone is in the running because they can see the potential value in providing satellite safety nets as a service, analysts say. Apple could easily add it to its subscription services, like the $7-per-month Apple TV Plus plan, $10-per-month Apple Music Plus, or $17 Apple One. Carriers could use it to sweeten the deal for the more expensive subscription plans, betting that the risk-averse among us are willing to pay extra for peace of mind. “It’s hard to overstate how important it is to tell someone you’re out of gas in the middle of the Gobi Desert, Death Valley or the Adirondacks,” said Techsponential’s Greengart .
Is it a bad thing to be the new phone trend?
Of course, the phone industry doesn’t have the best track record with new technologies. Analysts generally consider the last two years of the transition to 5G wireless to have been a disappointment, particularly because coverage has been spotty and speeds are sometimes as slow as the 4G LTE service we’ve had for years.
Sending text messages via satellite could be even more finicky than 5G, especially because it depends on the availability of satellites and the still untested constraint of having many people relaying requests for help through them. .
Still, early signs look promising. At CES 2023, Qualcomm took reporters outside of Las Vegas to test out its Snapdragon Satellite feature, and it worked. CNET Phone Editor Patrick Holland tested Apple’s Emergency SOS feature on his iPhone 14 and found it worked. In fact, anyone can try it without sending an emergency message thanks to a demo mode in the phone settings.
This seems to be the next frontier: using satellites to boost mobile networks and keep people in touch. Even though most people will never have the misfortune to need it, the feature still acts as a safety net, helping the more adventurous phone users who wander past cell towers or survivors of a disaster after the breakdown of mobile networks.
Some iPhone 14 owners have reportedly been saved by this feature, including a man stranded on a snowmobile trip 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. Within 30 minutes they were rescued. Without the iPhone’s satellite texting feature, emergency services would not have been contacted and “no one would have known how to track them down,” the Los Angeles County Sheriff said. John Gilbert told the Los Angeles Times.
We’ve come a long way from the need to buy big, bulky satellite phones if we’re going to safely venture beyond the reach of cellular networks. Soon, many smartphones will be able to call for help, whether you’ve taken a wrong turn in the wild or been attacked by dinosaurs on a remote island you should have walked away from.
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