MWC: iPhone Emergency SOS triggers new space race


Mobile World Congress (MWC) opens for business soon, and what Apple is doing usually casts a shadow at the world’s biggest mobile industry event. With that in mind, let’s note the plethora of satellite communication tools being introduced in the prelude to this year’s show.

Satellite’s gone, way up to…

Apple introduced the first generation of satellite communications via smartphones in September 2022, through a huge, multi-year deal, with GlobalStar. History shows Apple’s service — Emergency SOS via Satellite — reached market first. It is now available in multiple nations with iPhone 14.

As MWC approaches, we’ve already seen announcements outlining new products and solutions that use this technology. Here’s a short, cherry-picked selection:

It’s interesting that all these devices seem to support emergency connections, location sharing, and other useful features. And while some already offer a more “normal”  messaging experience than you currently get with Apple’s implementation, the direction of travel seems the same. Analysts expect nearly all major satellite operators will be using their Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites for such commercial applications.

Messaging for the rest of us

“Two-way satellite communications on smartphones and other devices will usher us into a new era of connectivity and open up new possibilities across many different verticals,” said JC Hsu, corporate vice president and general manager of MediaTek’s wireless communications business unit. 

We know Apple and GlobalStar are investing heavily in satellite infrastructure, and that most of that investment hasn’t quite reached the skies. The move suggests Apple’s current satellite usage proposition will in the future expand.

Apple already holds patents for expanding the service to handle photos, videos and other media applications, and others are moving in a similar direction, with two-way messaging clearly emerging as the next frontier. After all, if Bullitt and Motorola can do it, Apple won’t want to be far behind.

Will this be a feature in iPhone 15? Perhaps.

It seems pretty obvious that once Apple has enough birds high in the sky to support it, messaging via satellite will become a standard issue iPhone feature. In fact, given that competitors seem to be going in the same direction, this may become a standard issue for any smartphone.

While at first glance that may seem to be a negative for mobile telcos, it probably isn’t – if anything it means their networks will become less clogged with messaging bandwidth, bandwidth they can then use to provide the next-generation network services most seem interested in right now (think private 5G networks, SD-WAN, and IoT connectivity services).

The race to 6G has begun

Meanwhile, consumers (and presumably other users seeking ways to get online in scenarios in which standard networks are either unavailable or cannot be trusted) are seeing the cost of access to satellite communications decline. The Bulllit product costs just $99 a year, for example.

Solutions available now don’t yet replace satellite phones with voice and data communication, but innovation continues. We know 6G will embrace space communications and we also know operators such as SES already plan satellite based broadband connectivity which will be demonstrated at MWC.

All this activity, combined with what we’ve learned about the need to build robust communication systems thanks to the invasion of Ukraine, suggest satellite is destined to become a significant component in future broadband provision. It may take a decade to get there, but with every major operator now playing in the space, don’t be too surprised to see competition intensify.

Given Apple’s presence in the smartphone sector, the association with GlobalStar gives both a good launching pad for the smartphone space race. Meanwhile, given the relatively small number of companies capable of delivering satellite connectivity and the overall importance of data communications, the sector will inevitably hit regulatory oversight, and privacy advocates will rightfully amplify their demand for end-to-end encryption.

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