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Apple Says More about Emergency SOS via Satellite Technology

One of the most intriguing aspects of the iPhone 14 announcement was Apple’s presentation about the forthcoming Emergency SOS via satellite feature (see “Apple Unveils Four Models of the iPhone 14,” 7 September 2022). It promises to help iPhone users contact emergency services by communicating with low-earth orbit satellites when there’s no cellular or Wi-Fi coverage. (This couple could have used it.) Apple has now published an update that explains more about how this seemingly magical capability—satellite communications using a normal cell phone—came to be.

The short answer is through the application of large quantities of money. Apple invested $450 million in satellite network and ground station infrastructure, largely run by the global satellite service Globalstar. Read Apple’s post for the full details.

Globalstar ground stations
Globalstar ground stations

I’m struck by how much Apple spent on this feature. It’s easy to say that no amount is too large if it saves lives, but realistically, Apple is in business to make money, not save lives. To an extent, Emergency SOS via satellite might serve as a competitive selling point for iPhones, particularly when up against a plethora of often-cheaper Android phones.

But unlike Crash Detection, which I think many of us can imagine being useful even though we don’t expect to be in a crash, it’s hard to see lots of people buying an iPhone because of Emergency SOS via satellite. There can’t be that many people in the US and Canada who worry about being stranded in a life-threatening situation without cellular coverage. (That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of people who spend time in areas where cellular coverage is nonexistent, but presumably, most have managed to survive this long without satellite-enabled access to emergency services.)

It seems more likely that Apple sees satellite communications becoming increasingly important, with Emergency SOS via satellite and satellite-enabled Find My, which lets iPhone users share their location via satellite, being the first features to exploit the technology.

For instance, I could see future iPhones including enhanced antennas and radios so they could first support low-speed data and later full-fledged voice calls. Such a service wouldn’t be free, of course, and would serve both to differentiate the iPhone and bring in a regular revenue stream. How much would you pay per month to have constant connectivity without interruptions?

More generally, could adding satellite connectivity be a long play to capture market share in emerging countries that lack broad cellular coverage? The satellite service will initially be limited to the US and Canada, but it’s hard to imagine Apple wouldn’t want to expand coverage globally. Apple has roughly 50% of the US smartphone market but is working hard to reach 5% in India. On the assumption that a non-trivial portion of the global population lacks satisfactory cell service, satellite connectivity could be a compelling feature.

Apple reiterated that Emergency SOS via satellite and satellite-enabled Find My will launch later this month. Cellular service is spotty in my part of the world, so I look forward to testing it as soon as it’s available.

 

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Comments About Apple Says More about Emergency SOS via Satellite Technology

Notable Replies

  1. I’m struck by how much Apple spent on this feature. It’s easy to say that no amount is too large if it saves lives, but realistically, Apple is in business to make money, not save lives.

    I bet those $450M are nothing compared to all the “buy our device or die” marketing they now get to unleash.

    This was a pure business move. And a bet that will handily pay off, I have no doubt.

  2. Due to the poor cell phone coverage in rural Australia I invested in a Garmin Inreach device that keeps us in contact with a satellite network. The monthly subscription is expensive but the reassurance of staying in contact with friends (via SMS and a unique cell phone number) and SOS services is probably worth it when touring. The Garmin Earthmate iPhone app works reasonably well with the inreach although the UI needs some work.
    It will be interesting to see if Apple offers a subscription service like Garmin.
    BTW - this development means iPhones are no longer just “cell phones” - maybe start using “mobile phones” like many other countries! :blush:

  3. I used to do outside sales in upstate New York and found driving to the customer that there were many places with poor or no cellular coverage. The satellite service would be helpful in many situations.

  4. I don’t see any problem with this, or with crash detection and the other emergency services Apple provides. I think that saving lives and helping people in danger is a good thing. And it was made clear that Apple is working to provide this service beyond the US and Canada, and that the service will be soon be available 24/7, and a significant % the $450M will pay for the 24/7 live emergency responders.

    Apple is a for profit company, and this announcement has caused Android developers and manufacturers to go into overtime to come up with competing services asap.

  5. The more I think about this, it seems to me to me that Emergency SOS would be an excellent feature that could be included in the much anticipated, “Project Titan”… Apple car.

  6. As a side note, when I lived off grid over a decade ago, Globalstar provided excellent sat phones and service, much more affordable than the big names. They started buying up unused frequencies (forgive if that is wrong technical term) while launching more satellites. At the time back then, many folks thought they were foolishly buying worthless frequencies. Their SPOT satellite service has been literally a lifesaver for many back country hikers, skiers, and is likely what caught Apple’s attention.

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