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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.

  7. The most astonishing thing to me was the very last statement in the Apple press release:

    “In 2021, Apple announced an acceleration in its US investments, with plans to make new contributions of more than $430 billion over a five-year period.”

    $430 billion??? This satellite deal was only half a billion. What are they going to do with the other $429 billion?

  8. Thanks. But I still wonder what might appear if half a billion dollars can produce something as radical as satellite communications from a phone.

  9. I spend a lot of my leisure time here in New Zealand tramping (hiking) out of cell-phone range. I take a personal locator beacon in case of emergency. Pushing its button conjures up a helicopter and rescuers but there is no ability to have let them know in advance what the nature of the emergency is. SPOT and Garmin Inreach are good additions allowing for text messages as well as alerting the emergency responders. A satellite phone is expensive, heavy and bulky. I’m looking forward to being able to communicate with emergency services via my iPhone if needed. Bring it on Apple.

  10. What a fantastic innovation. Apple is once again raising the bar for what will be considered the new normal for mobile communication! I hope they will offer short term subscriptions (e.g., like a month) for when you know you’ll be travelling or in remote areas. It’ll be like buying travel insurance; you hope you don’t have to use it, but it’s there just in case.

  11. It’s easy to become cynical of the corporate world, in that the ultimate and only value held, is to make money. Unfortunately, that seems to be the general rule for most organizations.

    The exception:

    That particular value-set does not need to be the case. It is possible for organizations to do good, and be profitable. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive values. I am hoping that is what Apple is attempting. I don’t know what their values are exactly, but I hope we can give them the benefit of the doubt.

  12. 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.

    In my area, I can see lots of people who would disagree with this. I have two friends who are both upgrading to the iPhone 14 because of the satellite feature. The added safety feature was enough to tip the scales of the “is it time to upgrade my phone” in both cases after several years with the same iPhone.

    Both are day hikers in New England, nothing extreme; but there are lots of places with no cell signal around even without being on a hiking trail. Even driving inside my town (one of the largest in a rural region) there are dead zones from hills, but one could still see the sky.

    As a slightly more adventurous hiker than them, I’m also in the same boat, but it’s the iPhone 14 Pro’s camera that is the bigger draw for me; the 2 years of free emergency SOS satellite features is a great bonus feature.

  13. The Emergency and Find My satellite feature has gone live in the United States and Canada. Apple’s press release gives a good explanation of how it works and indicates how limited it is compared to a satellite phone.

  14. Sure, but I’m talking about iPhone numbers here—Apple reportedly sold 40 million iPhone 13 models in last year’s holiday quarter, so when I say there can’t be that many people in this situation, I’m thinking of it as a proportion of tens of millions.

    My favorite comment is that there’s a demo mode!

  15. The Apple support documents provide good information about using the new satellite services:

    1. Emergency Services (including the demo):
    1. Sharing your location via Find My:

    Note that you need to share our location with specific contacts via Find My before you leave WiFi or cellular connectivity for this to work.

  16. As I mentioned the Garmin Inreach subscription is relatively expensive. Their monthly subscription allows more SMS and map data than an ad-hoc subscription and might be better value for those doing several remote trips per year.
    Anyway, it is great that there will be more competition for this type of service.

  17. Apart from people who live in areas, often urban, that suffer regular natural disasters that can take out cell/wired telco infrastructure.

    Forest fires, hurricanes, earthquake/tsunami are the ones that spring to mind in a US context. All things that in the Scottish mountains where I sometimes live and lend my Inreach and Spot devices to visitors are nor a risk factor, Plus of course RTA, road traffic accidents in remote areas.

  18. Anyone who was in New York City and vicinity around the time of the 9/11/2001 World Trade Center attacks would vehemently dispute this. Verizon, who is still my cell carrier, had its antennas up 119 stories on the roof of the first building that was hit:

    And at the time, that Verizon location was also the mobile carrier for a big % of the NYC police department.

    it was quite some time till coverage was restored. For hours, I couldn’t reach my family or friends, and my family and friends couldn’t reach me.

    A few other cell providers had antennas on the roof.

    And during Hurricane Sandy and other weather disasters, as well as electrical outages, there are often problems in certain areas.

  19. Agreed that millions is a number that Apple might notice, but having lived overseas and in more rural parts of the US, I’m still amazed at the amount of tech companies and software developers that assume that a connection will always be available and design/engineer their products to match (ie poorly). In most places in the world, the opposite is true, even areas with large populations.

    Another thing to consider is that Apple also courts the aspirational market, like with the Ultra watch. It’s not actually the best at several things it does (hiking, diving), but if you only do those things once a year or more importantly, want/think you’ll do those things once a year…then Apple has you covered. I think a lot of people who generally are in cell coverage would consider the “just in case” as justified for the off chance of being protected, especially for family.

  20. Seriously, though, how many NYC residents now have satellite communication devices because they’re worried about losing service in another 9/11-like attack? Do you have a Garmin inReach mini on your nightstand? :slight_smile: Anyone you know who doesn’t also venture into the wilderness?

    I’m not arguing that Emergency SOS via satellite isn’t good, or that people won’t appreciate having it, but I just don’t think it’s the sort of feature that will change smartphone purchasing plans in a big way, which for Apple means millions of devices.

    People who were going to get an iPhone will continue to do so—perhaps a little sooner than they might have otherwise—and people who consider iPhones too expensive or who prefer the Android ecosystem won’t.

    Right, but satellite communications won’t provide enough connectivity for anything beyond very limited text messages for the foreseeable future. Even the current dedicated satellite communicators are limited to text messaging from what I see; and I see global coverage satellite phones priced from $900 to $1600, with service priced at $45/$65 per 10 minutes.

    You’re spot on! Emergency SOS via satellite is going to be one more feature that encourages upgrades in particular, and I can see it tipping some fence-sitting users to the iPhone camp who can justify the iPhone expense a little better with this as insurance.

  21. I’m a lifetime NYC resident, and on quite a few occasions, hurricane Sandy being one of natural disasters, there have also been major electrical overload blackouts:

    And in the hottest summer months, local blackouts tend to happen. I forget what year it was, but the building I live in was once the last one on the boarder of a major 100+ degree blackout. We were miserably sweating away and our refrigerator involuntarily defrosting while the building across the street had their air conditioners roaring.

    Here’s just a few recent hyper local ones:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manhattan_blackout_of_July_201

  22. There has considerable discussion here about the desirability of being able to use the Satellite Emergency SOS feature in cases of natural disasters. I think, however, it is likely not to be important in these cases:

    1. One does need access to a clear view of the sky in the direction of appropriate satellites. Thus, it is not helpful to folks actually trapped inside natural or artificial structures.

    2. I doubt the satellite network is robust enough to handle the call volume a natural disaster would generate. Some texts will get through, but the chances for any particular text would be very low.

    So, I think that the feature is quite useful in cases where a person encounters an emergency situation away from cellular networks. In California, once you get a few miles away from highway corridors or settlements, cellular coverage is quite weak. Even in major metropolitan areas, such regions exist. However, I think it will be of very limited use for events affecting the population.

  23. Another thing I read is that for location sharing via satellite to work you have to have already enabled location sharing with that person while you had internet access. That’s probably fine for close relatives and family you already share with, but in a natural disaster or blackout you’d possibly want to communicate with more people to let them know you’re okay and I’m not sure Apple’s SOS feature would work for that.

    Down the road as satellite communications become more common, sure, but right now I think this is mainly for hikers and off-road situations, rural car crashes, etc.

  24. I remember, several years ago, when an earthquake hit Northern Virginia. The cell phone network was operational, but it was so congested that calls and even texts couldn’t get through.

    Somehow I think that satellite connectivity wouldn’t be any better. It would be just as many people fighting over even less bandwidth.

    So no, I don’t think the “urban disaster” scenario will prove to be a meaningful use-case.

    But I do think that the case Apple is advertising - needing emergency services when out of range of any tower - is reasonable. While most cell phone users live and work within range of at least one tower (otherwise, why bother with the device?), we all travel and sometimes end up out of range, even without hiking on a mountain top.

    I’ve personally experienced complete loss of coverage while driving through rural parts of the US. Sometimes even on a major highway (e.g. on the Pennsylvania Turnpike near the Allegheny mountains en route to Pittsburgh). So there are definitely places where I would want this feature, should I be unfortunate enough to have an emergency while driving through one of these cellular dead zones.

  25. With Inreach you can send a text message with your location to any cell phone number without needing an internet connection.
    This is the way you first establish contact - they receive your inreach “phone” number and can reply to that number from then on. They cannot initially send you a text without this handshake message (i.e you cannot give them the number by other means).
    So… it is important to set up your emergency contacts before your trip and maybe give them access to your tracking data (URL of an online map), in case you are incapacitated.

  26. I think this is an important point that all users of satellite communication devices should be aware of, otherwise they might be lulled into a sense of false security. InReach does not work very well under tree cover (problematic in tropical rainforests) and in the shadow of mountains (e.g. in deep gorges in the Nepalese Himalaya). It will also depend on where the satellites are located (overhead/near the horizon?) and whether there are areas that are not covered. Some countries may also have restrictions on satellite communication devices.

  27. I tested it today and ran into this. To find a spot with no cell service, I ended up in Shindagin Hollow, a deep valley in a very rural area (Shindagin State Forest, in fact). It’s about 15 miles from my house.

    When I tried to access the satellite while on the road, it had me turn a few times but ultimately failed. So I walked up the hill on the side of the road 50 feet and that got me enough elevation to contact the satellites. I’ll write an article about it this weekend.

  28. Then I guess we will have to agree to disagree - the load will be different as not everyone will have the necessary hardware to make the satellite call and unlike terrestrial systems the satellites can downlink out of the hazard zone.

    Meanwhile here is from data from 11 years worth of Garmin Inreach SOS calls - Data Insights from 10,000 Garmin inReach SOS Incidents | Blog

    The second largest group of callers is car drivers followed by motorcyclists.

    f

  29. Thanks for the Garmin link - fascinating stats

  30. I might be typical user: I like to hike in areas that don’t have cell coverage. I was going to buy a Garmin InReach Mini2, about $450. then I hear about this. I have a 2020 SE which serves my needs fine, but I may forego the Garmin and get a iPhone 14.

  31. I guess we’ll have to wait and see how the iPhone 14 compares with the inReach. However I would expect the design of the inReach to be optimised for satellite reception.
    Given the threat-to-life situations where this technology is intended to be used the upfront cost and ongoing subscription seem worthwhile to me.
    An example is likely to be the winter storms sweeping across the northern hemisphere where cell phone services are disrupted.
    As it happens I have packed my inReach for a hike today in Australia’s Snowy Mountains…

  32. agreed, I dont know enough about the capabilities of the iPhone 14 to judge, but as you say, IF you need it, you want it perform adequately

  33. Got back from my hike safely :blush:
    It reminded me of the mapping feature of inReach. Paired with the Garmin Earthmate app it displays quite detailed topographic maps on the iPhone with walking trails and the like.

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