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Apple announced a forthcoming satellite connectivity feature called Emergency SOS via Satellite at its iPhone 14 launch event. The tool is intended to help people using the company’s next-generation phones to communicate when their cell service isn’t working — a process that Apple said took years to make a reality.
The company said it designed and built specific technology into iPhone 14 devices so that they can connect to satellites even when not near a terrestrial tower. The service is expected to roll out in November in the United States and Canada. The iPhone 14 will begin pre-sales on Friday and comes with a starting price of $799, Apple announced on Wednesday at its flashy annual event.
“Unlike stationary cell towers, communication satellites are hundreds of miles above the Earth, and flying at over 15,000 miles per hour. To connect to these satellites, you need to 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. “Typically, the only way to tap into such a network is with an expensive device that uses a bulky external antenna.”
“We knew that approach just wouldn’t work for iPhone,” she added. “So we invented another way.”
The iPhone 14 will have the built-in antenna required to communicate with satellites — and it’ll look nothing like the bulky satellite phones of years past.
The phone will come equipped with software that will show users where to point their phones in order to link up to a satellite when no other service options are available. Once connected, the phones will be able to send and receive information to get emergency help, according to Apple satellite specialist Ashley Williams, who spoke during the event. The company said it created a short text compression mechanism to condense messages such that 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-based communication, she said, and can be used to communicate with emergency centers that only accept voice calls because Apple set up “relay centers” to pass the text along.
The tool can also be used in non-emergency situations, such as when a user is out for a long hike and wants to keep their family updated on their whereabouts.
The service will be offered for free for two years with an iPhone 14 purchase, according to Apple iPhone marketing vice president Kaiann Drance. She did not reveal how much the service will cost after that.
Adding satellite service to new iPhones “should dominate the headlines,” according to Ben Wood, chief analyst at CCS Insight.
“The investment to add satellite capability should not be underestimated. It will likely have taken Apple years to put all the pieces of the puzzle in place including a commercial agreement with satellite provider Globalstar and the creation of the infrastructure needed to pass messages to the emergency services,” Wood said.
It was not immediately clear what satellites in orbit will provide Apple’s new service. Apple did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.
But the news, with a release date expected for just next month, comes after T-Mobile announced similar plans to “eliminate dead zones” by using new SpaceX Starlink satellites for back-up service. It’s been marketed as a move to provide full high-speed internet service across the dead zones. The roll out of that service is not expected before the end of next year, though T-Mobile said that, once released, it should work with customers’ existing phones.