The iPhone 14 satellite comms feature will be hard for rivals to copy, even though other smartphone makers may be able to offer more limited services.
Our sister site SpaceExplored last week revealed that Apple was expected to use 85% of Globalstar’s capacity for the service, and a new report today says that this is a contractual agreement dating back to negotiations in 2019…
iPhone 14 satellite comms
The iPhone 14’s Emergency SOS via Satellite feature was one of the headline announcements made during last week’s Apple event, and the reason for the Far Out name and space visuals.
We noted at the time how Apple and Globalstar have addressed two of the key problems with satellite comms. First, bandwidth is very low, taking a long time to transmit even text messages. Second, each satellite is only overheard for a short time.
One key innovation is that the mode does not rely on transmitting full text messages. Instead, it asks a series of questions, and then encodes the answers into compressed form.
Since Apple knows what information is collected in what order, it can compress the data to almost nothing. For example, the first question is: Who needs help? The options are Me, Someone Else, and Multiple People. The iPhone could easily just send a 1, 2, or 3, with the server at Apple’s end turning it back into the full wording. If the feature asks five questions, this could easily be encoded into something like: 13225 plus the latitude and longitude. This makes satellite comms a lot more reliable.
The service operates via Globalstar satellites specifically designed to provide services to smartphones.
As previously rumored, Globalstar will be the company behind Apple’s satellite safety system. Founded in 2001, Globalstar operates a constellation of 24 satellites in low Earth orbit to provide services to satellite-equipped cell phones.
In an SEC filing released during Apple’s “Far Out” event, Globalstar plans to allocate 85% of its current and future network capacity to Apple for this service.
The The Wall Street Journal reports that the 85% capacity allocated to Apple is a contractual agreement, reached as a result of negotiations dating back to 2019.
Satellite-industry executives say Apple was able to clinch an early foothold by approaching satellite companies as early as 2019. The iPhone maker eventually struck an exclusive deal with Globalstar Inc. for 85% of the satellite company’s network capacity. That decision blocked rival hardware makers from using Globalstar’s infrastructure to launch competing services.
“They’ve sort of locked this up, and it’s really down to Apple to decide how far they want to take it,” said Tim Farrar, president of telecom-industry consulting firm TMF Associates, noting that only one or two other companies have the right combination of already-launched satellites and access to wireless airwaves to effectively reach smartphones.
Huawei beat Apple to the punch with its own satellite comms announcement prior to Apple’s event.
Something many expect Apple to announce today is a satellite text feature, designed for use in emergencies in isolated areas where no cellular coverage is available. But if so, Huawei has just beaten Apple in announcing the feature, noting that it will be available in the Mate 50.
However, the company only offers one-way communications, using Chinese GPS satellites, and the phone is not available within the US. Apple may therefore be able to maintain its exclusivity with the feature for some time.
More satellite services coming
How long Apple will retain exclusivity is a big question. Satellite comms with smartphones is expected to become big business, and there are a number of companies working in this area.
For example, SpaceX and T-Mobile have partnered in a somewhat similar service, but that isn’t scheduled to go live until late 2023. Satellite phone company Iridium also sees big potential.
“There’s over a billion new smartphones a year. There’s something like seven billion smartphones out there in the coming years,” Iridium Chief Executive Matt Desch told investors in July. “I think it’s going to be a sizable market to make any kind of connection to devices like smartphones, and I wouldn’t even limit it to smartphones.”
The full WSJ The piece also outlines other companies and their plans, albeit without any detail.
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