Satellite communication via smartphone

The Apple iPhone 14 and 14Pro can send emergency messages via satellite. A screen display helps users to keep the phone antenna pointed at the satellite.
The Apple iPhone 14 and 14Pro can send emergency messages via satellite. A screen display helps users to keep the phone antenna pointed at the satellite.
The Apple iPhone 14 and 14Pro can send emergency messages via satellite. A screen display helps users to keep the phone antenna pointed at the satellite.

Satellite communications capabilities for voyagers have steadily increased in recent years and show no signs of stopping. Apple has actually joined the satcom fray by recently introducing new iPhone models, the iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 Pro, that can send and receive emergency messages via the Globalstar satellite network. Meanwhile other smartphone service providers like T-Mobile and Verizon have announced plans to offer satellite connectivity. For voyagers, the capability to send a distress message from your phone, in addition to pre-existing methods, such as EPIRBs and satellite-based devices like inReach, means more chances that an emergency can end with assistance or rescue.

In the case of Apple satellite SOS service, only the new iPhone 14 and 14 Pro have this capability. According to Apple, the iPhone 14 antenna is different than previous models — it was designed to connect to the low earth orbit (LEO) satellites used by Globalstar. Unlike cell towers, which are generally only a few miles distant from your phone at any time, Globalstar’s LEO satellites are in 876-mile high orbits. Given that distance, the iPhone signal needs all its transmit power headed skyward. Apple notes that the satellite SOS service will only work when the iPhone has an unobstructed view of the sky. And more than that, the iPhone needs to be pointed at the satellite. This seems like a difficult thing to ask of users, since even though there are 48 Globalstar satellites in orbit, they’re spaced around the earth and seeing the satellites is, of course, impossible. To facilitate  connection, Apple has included a screen display that assists users in pointing the phone at the nearest satellite. The display helps users track the spacecraft as it passes across the sky. (Given the altitude of their orbits, LEO satellites, unlike geosynchronous satellites, rise, transit and then set — taking 10 to 15 minutes to cross the sky).

Once contact is made the user can send and receive short text messages. To make this messaging process easier, the iPhone has prepopulated responses to rescue services questions. Since the bandwidth available via these satellites is small, only short messages can be sent and received, there is no voice capability. And even with short text messages, the time for messages to send and be received can be lengthy, according to Apple.

Initially, this service will be offered for free to iPhone 14 and 14 Pro owners. After two years, Apple will start charging for the service, although the company has not revealed what it will cost for the service. 

In August of 2022, the cell phone service provider T-Mobile and the launch company SpaceX, which operates the Starlink satellite service, announced that future T-Mobile users will be able to send and receive text messages and eventually place cell phone voice calls via Starlink. Beta testing of the new service is not expected until late in 2023, with full service available some time after that. Verizon made an announcement in 2021 that it will work with Amazon’s Project Kuiper to offer satellite cell phone service. Project Kuiper, however, has yet to launch any of the 3,236 satellites it has received authorization for from the FCC. 

Much more capable satellite messaging services are already available, of course. The Garmin inReach (which uses the Iridium satellite system) and SPOT Messenger (which uses Globalstar statellites) are dedicated units that can send preset and custom messages, alert emergency services and receive weather info. Both the inReach and the SPOT Messenger have built-in GPS and they have smartphone apps that allow you to use your phone as a front end for operating the unit. Some of the inReach units also have electronic maps and nautical charts. In both cases, you must purchase the transceiver hardware and pay for a subscription plan. The inReach has a hardware cost of $399.99 for the basic inReach Mini 2 and a basic subscription plan costs $14.95 per month (10 custom messages, unlimited preset messages, tracking and unlimited SOS). The SPOT hardware cost is $249.99 and the basic subscription costs $11.95 a month (20 custom messages, unlimited preset messages, unlimited check-in messages, tracking and unlimited SOS). 

For many voyagers this satellite SOS service on the iPhone, which is not a messaging service but for emergencies only, is far more limited than what they may already have if they own an inReach or SPOT Messenger. In addition, while a current smartphones can generally give you a five to seven hours of battery life, the inReach and SPOT messenger units will give many hours more battery life than an iPhone. 

When it comes to emergencies and the need for rescue, all bets are off. When you need a rescue, you want as many options as possible. If all you have is a phone in your pocket and it can be used to summon help, you’ll certainly want to make use of it.