“Unlike fixed cell towers, communications satellites are hundreds of miles above the Earth and fly at over 15,000 miles per hour. To connect to these satellites, you must be outside with a clear view of the sky. And the bandwidth is so limited that even sending a text message is a technical challenge,” Williams said. “Usually the only way to access such a network is to use a expensive device that uses a bulky external antenna.”
“We knew this approach just wouldn’t work for the iPhone,” she added. “So we invented another way.”
The phone will come with software that will show users where to point their phone in order to connect to a satellite when no other service options are available. Once connected, the phones will be able to send and receive information for emergency assistance, according to Apple satellite specialist Ashley Williams, who spoke at the event. The company said it created a short text compression mechanism to condense messages so they will take about 15 seconds to send if a user has a clear view of the sky. (It may take a few minutes longer if something like foliage is in the way.)
The service will work for text communication, she said, and can be used to communicate with emergency centers that only accept voice calls, as Apple has set up “relay centers” for send the text.
The tool can also be used in non-emergency situations, such as when a user has gone on a long hike and wants to keep their family informed of their whereabouts.
The service will be offered free for two years with an iPhone 14 purchase, according to Kaiann Drance, vice president of marketing for Apple iPhone. She did not reveal how much the service will cost after that.
Adding satellite service to new iPhones “should grab the headlines,” said Ben Wood, chief analyst at CCS Insight.
“The investment to add satellite capacity should not be underestimated. It will likely have taken years for Apple to put all the pieces of the puzzle together, including a commercial agreement with satellite provider Globalstar and the creation of the infrastructure needed to deliver messages to emergency services,” Wood said.
Globalstar has confirmed in a financial filing that it is the contractor for this project. Apple did not immediately respond to an email request for additional information.