Apple iPhone 13 to Support Satellite Emergency SOS Texts and Reporting

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Last week, the oft-reliable Ming-Chi Kuo shared that this year’s iPhone models will be gaining features and technologies that could allow them to communicate with low earth orbit (LEO) satellites, setting off a whole new round of speculation as to exactly what Apple could be up to.

While some jumped to the most promising conclusion that Apple could be planning to add full satellite phone capabilities to this year’s iPhones, upon digging deeper, it quickly became apparent that this was very unlikely.

For starters, Kuo’s information only revealed that Apple was planning to support a new terrestrial cellular frequency — band 53. What’s noteworthy here, however, is that this is a 2.4GHz band that’s licensed solely to Globalstar — a satellite communications company.

Like most communications technology companies, however, Globalstar does more than just satellites. Among other things, it’s been deploying private terrestrial cellular networks at places like the Port of Seattle and the New York Power Authority.

This actually raised more questions than it answered, however, since even if Apple were solely interested in adding support for the terrestrial band 53 spectrum, this is only used by Globalstar for private networks. For example, providing 4G/5G service to facilitate communications between things like logistics systems and power meters.

It’s hard to figure out why an iPhone would need this kind of connectivity, but according to Kuo’s information, there’s little doubt that Apple is very specifically working to support band 53 — in fact, it’s ordered a customized chip to do so.

At this point, Apple is still using Qualcomm’s modem chips to power its cellular connectivity. With the iPhone 12, that was Qualcomm’s X55, and this year it’s said to be going with the X60. However, rather than waiting for the upcoming X65, which will including band 53 support, Apple has specifically asked for a customized version of the X60 that also includes band 53.

What Does All of This Mean?

The idea of turning the iPhone into a satellite phone is not at all practical, as Apple would need to develop some pretty serious antenna hardware to pull this off. After all, Apple had to design new antennas just to make 5G work properly, and satellite communications are an order of magnitude more complicated than that.

Even if Apple were working on such a thing, there’s no way it would have escaped everybody’s notice until now. Multiple leaks occurred last year about Apple’s antenna designs for the iPhone 12, months ahead of time. It’s inconceivable that Apple would have been able to keep a satellite antenna array a secret.

Further, Kuo makes no mention of antennas at all. He simply notes that the X60 chip will include support for the band 53 frequencies used by Globalstar — and so far, these frequencies are only used for Globalstar’s private terrestrial networks.

It’s definitely a bit of a mystery, but now Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman is offering up one plausible theory that Apple does indeed have plans to let your iPhone talk to satellites — just in a far less ambitious way than many may have hoped.

According to Gurman, the satellite capabilities will be focused on sending requests for help in an emergency, basically as an extension of the Emergency SOS feature that’s been available since iOS 11 launched in 2017.

Apple has always been at the forefront when it comes to integrated safety features, but even its best efforts thus far can’t overcome the lack of any cellular connectivity.

The Emergency SOS feature has saved numerous lives, including saving folks stranded at sea or even after falling off a cliff. In fact, paired with features like Fall Detection, medical help can be summoned automatically even when a person is unconscious.

However, all of these great safety features rely on the user having a cellular signal. While you don’t need to have a cellular plan to be able to call for help, your device still needs to be able to reach a cellular network.

Adding the ability to send Emergency SOS messages via satellite, however, would be a gigantic step in closing the safety gap to ensure that people could be rescued out of harm’s way from anywhere on the planet, no matter how far they are from a cellular tower.

The company is developing at least two related emergency features that will rely on satellite networks, aiming to release them in future iPhones, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.

Mark Gurman

According to Gurman, Apple is looking into at least two ways of handling this. One will focus on sending Emergency Messages via Satellite, basically adding a third protocol to the Messages app. Users will be able to send texts using satellites when no Wi-Fi or cellular signal is available, where they’ll appear as grey message bubbles instead of green (SMS) or blue (iMessage).

  • The feature is said to be codenamed “Stewie” inside of Apple, and it will be focused on sending very short-length, text-only emergency messages.
  • These texts will also automatically override do-not-disturb or Focus modes on a recipient’s iPhone, on the basis that they’re only going to be used in emergencies.

A second emergency feature would allow users to report a crisis, such as a plane crash, or a sinking ship, or even just someone falling overboard. This would involve a system whereby a user would report the incident and then be prompted to answer specific questions, such as whether search and rescue services are needed, or if weapons or traumatic injuries are involved.

According to sources, Apple ultimately intends for the feature to work much like Emergency SOS currently does over cellular networks, not only contacting emergency services, but also notifying emergency contacts and transmitting medical ID and location information as necessary.

According to Gurman, Apple’s implementation would basically bring the features of Garmin’s inReach device directly into a user’s iPhone. The inReach uses the Iridium satellite network to send and receive text messages and emails, and offers emergency SOS features through Garmin’s own emergency response centre. However, it also requires a separate subscription plan, which start at $11.95/month with an annual commitment.

When’s It Coming?

According to Gurman, the feature isn’t expected to actually launch until sometime next year, although there’s a good chance the “iPhone 13” will include the necessary hardware to support it, thereby allowing Apple to switch it on with a software update.

While some have speculated that the functionality will show up this month with the iPhone 13, I’m told we won’t see the features go live until next year. That doesn’t mean hardware support won’t be embedded this year, but don’t expect your iPhone to save your life for at least several more months.

Mark Gurman

In addition, Gurman says that the feature will only work in areas without any cellular coverage, which makes sense as you don’t really need it otherwise. More importantly, however, it looks like Apple only expects to launch it in “select markets,” although Gurman doesn’t specify which ones.

[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.]

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