Apple Could Someday Have Its Own Satellite Network for Your iPhone

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Apple has a lot of “secret-but-not-so-secret” projects on the go, ranging from the Apple Car to an Augmented Reality Headset, but with a quarter-trillion dollars of cash in the bank and some even more secretive research and development teams, it’s likely the company is working on a whole bunch of other things that we’ve barely heard whispers of.

One such example is the work that Apple seems have been doing with satellite technology. We heard two years ago that the company recruited two top satellite engineers from Google’s Alphabet to join a ”special project” at Apple, but as usual there was no comment from the secretive company, nor could any of the typical sources offer anything beyond speculation as to exactly what Apple was up to.

With other tech giants and start-ups like SpaceX already pursuing the final frontier, it made sense that Apple wouldn’t be able to ignore it, and at the time some suggested Apple was looking to become a satellite internet provider in its own right, or that it could somehow be tied into the company’s Maps program and the Apple Car. However, following an initial wave of speculation, talk about Apple’s interest in outer space went silent.

Of course, it’s difficult to keep groundbreaking projects secret for long inside a company as big as Apple, since if nothing else it eventually has to start expanding its efforts and drawing in more engineers and other support staff to its teams, and now it looks like it’s doing exactly that by ramping up hiring for the division.

According to Bloomberg, Apple already has about a dozen engineers that it’s drawn from the aerospace, satellite, and antenna design industries who are working on the secret team, with the company’s aim reportedly to deploy a solution within five years.

While the project is still said to be very early, and “a clear direction and use for satellites hasn’t been finalized,” it seems to be aiming at providing some form of iPhone connectivity, and may be one of Tim Cook’s latest pet projects, which suggests it’s a big priority.

Expanding the Team

The team is now being led by the two executives that Apple hired away from Alphabet in 2017, Michael Trela and John Fenwick, a pair of former aerospace engineers who originally headed up a satellite imaging company before being acquired by Google in 2014.

Trela and Fenwick’s initial efforts at Apple seemed to be focused on whether it was even feasible for Apple to develop satellite technology, as well as trying to get a handle on exactly what Apple was hoping to accomplish. The project suffered a setback earlier this year when the original project leader, Greg Duffy, left Apple, but now appears to be back on track and has intensified over the past few months.

Apple has started expanding the team with the hire of new hardware and software engineers with experience in designing communications systems and equipment, as well as executives from the aerospace and wireless data industries.

The team still appears to be assigned to the hardware engineering division led Apple Senior VP Dan Riccio, but apparently now reports to Riccio’s lieutenant who oversees iPhone engineering, adding more weight to the belief that it’s an initiative focused primarily on iPhone communications, rather than something broader like mapping or navigation systems.

Some of Apple’s recent hires for the team identified by Bloomberg include engineer Matt Ettus, one of the foremost names in wireless technologies, Ashley Moore Williams, a longtime executive from Aerospace Corp. who worked with communications satellites, and Daniel Ellis, who oversaw the massive global content delivery network behind Netflix.

Is Apple Going to Launch Satellites?

It’s still not entirely clear where Apple is going with this, and just because the company is working on satellite technology doesn’t necessarily mean that Apple plans to put its own satellite constellation into space.

One possibility would be for Apple to simply take data from an existing satellite network and send it to mobile devices, or to partner with a big satellite maker like Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, or Boeing to piggyback its communication systems on existing satellites.

However, considering Apple’s typical desire to control all of the pieces to any solution it develops, we suspect that it’s not ruling out that possibility, and there’s no doubt that if anybody can afford to launch its own satellite network, it’s Apple.

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