Apple said at its annual event today that the new iPhone 14 will be able to connect to satellites in case of an emergency. The “Emergency SOS via Satellite” service is a text message service that helps people in dire situations in remote areas where there isn’t always cell phone coverage.
As expected, Apple is working with the satellite company Globalstar to offer the service, which will use Globalstar’s Band 53 spectrum. Reuters says that Apple will pay for 95% of the approved capital costs for the new satellites needed for the service.
At the company’s event today, Kann Drance, Apple’s vice president of worldwide product marketing, said, “The iPhone is designed for the best-in-class cellular experience, but connecting to satellite presents a whole new set of challenges.” Then she explained the problems, which made it clear that giving regular cell phones full text, data, and voice service through satellite will be a formidable technical challenge.
Drance said that communication satellites are hundreds of miles above the earth and move more than 15,000 miles per hour. You must be outside with a clear sky view to connect to these satellites. “The bandwidth is so small that it’s hard even to send a text message,” she said. “Usually, the only way to connect to a network like this is with a pricey device with a big antenna on the outside.”
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Apple didn’t want to make an iPhone with a large antenna like those from the 1990s. Drance said, “So we came up with a different way. So that the iPhone 14 antennas can connect to the unique frequencies of satellites, we made custom parts and software. That connection is only possible when the phone is pointed directly at a satellite.”
But because satellites fly too high for people to see, Apple had to make a user interface that shows people where to point the phone to connect and stay connected as the satellite moves. Once connected, the person in trouble needs to send and receive enough information to get help. “Satellite bandwidth is too small for standard messaging protocols,” Drance said.
“So, we made a custom algorithm for short-text compression that cuts the average size of a message by a factor of three. With this algorithm, you can send a message in less than 15 seconds if you can see the sky. In other situations, like when there is little vegetation, it may take a few minutes.
Apple also worked with emergency experts to find out what questions they would most likely ask. This reduced the back and forth between the person in need and the emergency responders. It then gives the phone user a list of the most common answers from which to choose with just a few texts. “You can get help faster if you have less to write and send,” said Drance.
After the message is sent to a ground status needs to get to the right emergency service provider. If that emergency service provider can receive text messages, Apple will put the user in touch with them directly. But if the emergency services center only takes voice calls, Apple has set up relay centers where experts are ready to call an emergency services provider.
France’s explanation showed how it would be to make the dream of regular cell phones that can connect to satellites for full text, data, and voice services come true. She said, “It took years of hardware, software, and infrastructure innovations that changed the game to make this vision come true.” Today, Jonathan Chaplin, an analyst at New Street Research, wrote, “Satellite-enabled text is a small step toward a much bigger chance.
The killer app will be voice and data connections that can be made anywhere in the world through satellites that work seamlessly with cellular networks on the ground. This could be worth more than $20 billion yearly in the U.S.” The emergency satellite service is free for the first two years after buying the new iPhone 14.