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With Apple’s launch event for this year’s “iPhone 13” lineup likely only days away, we’re seeing the usual assortment of last-minute leaks. While most of these have been relatively minor bits of info, one reputable source has just dropped a bombshell by revealing that this year’s iPhone could feature some form of satellite connectivity.
According to venerable analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, the “iPhone 13” is expected to feature technologies that could empower low earth orbit (LEO) satellite connectivity, allowing users to make calls and send text messages in areas without traditional cellular coverage.
In a research note seen by MacRumors, Kuo tells investors that he expects the “iPhone 13” lineup to include the necessary hardware to connect to LEO satellites, but he’s less clear on whether Apple plans to enable the feature in iOS 15.
Apple’s Communication Chips
It’s worth keeping in mind that the LEO satellite connectivity could be little more than an included capability of a chip that Apple is using anyway. In other words, Apple may not have any plans at all to add this feature to the iPhone, and could just ignore this capability instead — at least for now.
According to Kuo, the key is the Qualcomm X60 baseband chip that Apple will include in this year’s iPhone. This chip is a logical upgrade from the Qualcomm X55 that was used to power last year’s first 5G iPhones, and there are many reasons for Apple to use the X60 that go well beyond satellite comms.
For instance, the X60 has been built using the same 5-nanometer manufacturing process as Apple’s recent A-series chips, which means that they’re smaller and use less power to do the same amount of work.
In fact, the X60 reportedly uses up to 15 percent less power to perform the same tasks as the X55, which means longer battery life. Plus, as a smaller chip, it leaves more space inside, and we’ve known for a while that Apple has been hard at work making room for bigger batteries in this year’s iPhones.
This also wouldn’t be the first time that Apple went with an off-the-shelf chip that has capabilities beyond what Apple plans to use. For years, Apple used Broadcom chips in its iPhones that had FM radio capabilities, but it never showed any interest whatsoever in adding FM radio to its iPhones.
Contrary to a few popular conspiracy theories, this wasn’t because Apple was out to promote streaming services. Instead, Apple simply used a Wi-Fi and Bluetooth chip that also included an FM radio receiver. Apple likely never even cared that an FM receiver was in there — it was simply part of the package.
In fact, by the time the iPhone 7 debuted, Apple had switched to a different communication chip that didn’t include the FM radio component. Since it never cared about that component anyway, it wouldn’t have been a factor in picking a new communications chip for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
This resulted in some confusion where the FCC tried to pressure Apple into enabling the FM radio for emergency services, to which Apple had to respond that it couldn’t turn on hardware that didn’t exist.
It’s worth keeping in mind that even the FM radio capabilities found in older iPhone models couldn’t just be “switched on” via software updates. As we’ve already seen with new 5G technologies, there’s more to sending and receiving wireless signals than just the chip itself — you also need other hardware like antennas. Even the older iPhone models with the FM-capable Broadcom chips were never designed to actually make use of the FM technology in any way. FM radio was a feature that Apple got as part of the package that it never intended to use in the first place.
This Isn’t Just for Satellites
So, as futuristic and exciting as satellite communications sound in a new iPhone, this may not be what this is about at all.
Although LEO satellite communications are definitely on the roadmap for many smartphone manufacturers, including Apple, most are waiting for next year’s Qualcomm X65 chip before they even begin going down this road.
According to Kuo, however, Apple has been working with Qualcomm and satellite provider Globalstar to customize the X60 chip for its requirements, which has led to the idea that it’s bolstered the LEO capabilities.
If true, this could indicate that Apple wants to have these capabilities available sooner rather than later. Since future iPhone models would presumably use an even new chip like the X65 or a future “X70,” there’d be little point in customizing the X60 to bring satellite communications for this year’s model unless Apple planned to have it available in this year’s model.
It’s also worth noting that, unlike the traditional satellite phones of yesteryear, modern low-earth orbit satellite communications technology is largely based on existing 5G capabilities, and this is where there may be some confusion.
Specifically, the key to supporting LEO communications is Globalstar’s 5G band n53, which is coming to Qualcomm’s X65 chip. However, although Globalstar is a leading satellite technology provider, it’s also been building out a private terrestrial 2.4GHz 4G/5G network over the past few years, and to achieve that it’s using — you guessed it — band 53.
As part of its 2020 Financial Results earlier this year, Globalstar announced that it had deployed band 53 at the Port of Seattle through a partnership with Nokia, but it also adds that this is part of its “terrestrial spectrum,” and not at all tied directly to its satellite technologies.
As PCMag’s lead mobile and 5G analyst Sascha Segan points out, many folks may be hearing the name “Globalstar” and automatically assuming that the new technology is about talking to satellites, when in reality this is about supporting a new ground-based 5G band that will be used to enhance LTE connectivity.
Since even LEO satellite communications would require a much more sophisticated antenna array, it seems pretty unlikely that Apple would have been able to keep this one a complete secret from leakers for this long, which suggests to us that it’s much more likely that the new band 53 support is an incremental change designed to support new 4G/5G frequencies, rather than something as ambitious as satellite communications.
What’s more interesting, however, is why Apple would feel the need to support Globalstar’s band 53 in the first place. So far, this band has been used only to support private 4G/5G network deployments. For example, the network at the Port of Seattle is intended as a Wi-Fi replacement for businesses operating within the port’s Terminal 5. GlobalStar is working on a similar deployment with the New York Power Authority to handle its internal communication needs.
It’s hard to figure out where the “iPhone 13” would fit into networks such as these, however, which arguably makes it just as likely that it could be tied to enabling at least some future satellite-related communications.
Due to antenna limitations, however, it’s very unlikely that this is going to go so far as to allow for things like phone calls and normal text messaging, but it could conceivably be used to power lower-bandwidth features like Apple’s Find My network.
Furthermore, with Globalstar’s strong focus on internet-of-things devices, band 53 support could also become an important part of supporting new smart home technologies.
With Apple’s penchant for playing the long game, these enhancements may also be similar to the U1 chip that appeared in the iPhone 11 two years ago — a component that was initially of little use, but is now key to Apple’s AirTags and other upcoming Find My Network devices.
[The information provided in this article has NOT been confirmed by Apple and may be speculation. Provided details may not be factual. Take all rumors, tech or otherwise, with a grain of salt.]