Smartphone satellite expectations will soon crash to Earth

A new tech revolution enables everyday smartphones to connect to space. But the business benefit isn’t really there.

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Have you heard the news? Regular smartphones are getting satellite connectivity!

Apple recently announced long-rumored satellite support for the new iPhone 14, enabling users to send emergency messages outside cellular coverage areas.

The service, called Emergency SOS, was made possible through a partnership with Globalstar, the American low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite company. (Apple hinted at other future partnerships as well.) Emergency SOS is set to launch in the US and Canada in November and in other countries later.

Apple’s news is just one part of a larger story about satellite connectivity coming to everyday smartphones.

It’s coming from space!

Before Apples rollout — a preemptive PR strike, no doubt — T-Mobile and SpaceX announced a partnership over satellite connectivity for coverage blanketing the United States. (The satellites wont be launched until next year at the earliest.)

Huawei has announced its Mate 50 series, which will offer the ability to send, but not receive, text messages using Chinas global BeiDou satellite network.

A credible rumor says Samsung will add satellite communication of some kind in upcoming Galaxy phones early next year.

Qualcomm, Ericsson and Thales are testing satellite connectivity as part of their 5G technologies.

And Google recently confirmed that the next version of Android would support satellite communication.

Apples announcement brought attention to a new phase in smartphone capability, one in which future devices will directly connect to satellites. This shift has been a long time in the making.

Companies have been working on satellite-to-smartphone connectivity for years. AST SpaceMobile and Lynk Global, for example, have been chipping away at the barriers and both plan to launch multiple satellites by the end of 2023. (The FCC approved Lynk Global’s license this month.) Theyll partner with carriers around the world to offer service, which will typically be offered to customers as option for an additional monthly fee.

Why expectations will crash to Earth

Of course, satellite phones have been around for decades. But until now, theyve been special-purpose devices with very expensive call and data plans from companies such as Inmarsat, Thuraya and Iridium. In the past, these phones had comically large antennae. But in recent years, they’ve been whittled down to nubs or, in rare cases, built fully into the handset, which have to be bulkier than smartphones to accommodate the satellite components.

Special-purpose products, such as the Garmin InReach line (which uses the Iridium network) for communication offer the ability to send text messages, share your location, and send an SOS message to a dedicated emergency response center. The “mini” version is pretty small and pocketable.

UK-based Bullitt, which makes rugged phones for professionals under the Cat and Motorola brands, recently teased a new phone that’s roughly the size of an iPhone, but much thicker; it’s  expected to launch early next year and enable seamless switching between Wi-Fi, cellular, and satellite using a custom chipset and custom app. The service would require a dedicated satellite plan from a still-unnamed provider separate from the usual cellular plan.

Heres what you need to know: It would be a mistake to believe that regular smartphones are on the brink of getting satellite phone connectivity that functions as alternatives to cellular connectivity. Thats not whats happening.

Whats new is a new generation of satellites, with new smartphone electronics that connect to them, that enable extremely limited connections.

While dedicated satellite phones are slow, satellite connectivity for smartphones is slower still. Dedicated satellite phones get data performance below — often well below — 10 Kbps (far slower than 2G phones). The new smartphone satellite antennas are far less optimized, so expect data speeds below 2 Kbps — that’s Kbps with a “K” — even with Starlink.

Even sending a single sentence will take some time. In fact, Apple’s service doesn’t even send sentences because whole sentences are too big. Instead they’ll use what is basically a multiple choice quiz of canned responses so they can send the minimum amount of data. Even still, this tiny amount of data used only by iPhone 14 users outside of coverage areas in emergency situations prompted Globalstar to allocate 85% of its network capacity to iPhones.

And Apple’s minimalist service will be super slow. Apple’s help page for Emergency SOS says: “When using a satellite connection, it might take about 15 seconds to send a message when you have a clear view of the sky. Through trees with light or medium foliage, it might take over a minute.”

For the foreseeable future, the new smartphone satellite revolution wont substantially help business. The biggest beneficiaries are adventurers, people lost at sea and extreme travelers. It will be useless, however, to such people in forests, canyons, caves or anywhere else without perfect line-of-site to the sky.

No doubt, a few lives will be saved by Apples Emergency SOS feature, which is a good thing for the saved — and for Apples iPhone marketing group.

But for business communication outside normal cellular coverage areas, dedicated satellite phones will remain far superior.

The big picture about satellite communication

The emergence of smartphone satellite is part of a much larger trend where more places will have wireless connectivity of some kind or another.

One extreme example involves Google, which recently spun out from its balloon-internet startup, Loon, a new company called Aalyria. It aims to develop next-generation software created at Alphabet called Spacetime in a secret project code-named “Minkowski” for fast, secure laser-based communications using hardware technology called “Tightbeam.” The goal is access from “land, sea, air, near space, and deep space,” and includes satellite communication. The startup promises super-fast, very high-bandwidth communication in environments without existing infrastructure, including in space.

It’s true that revolutions around connectivity where none has previously existed are emerging all around us.  But it’s important to temper expectations about how these revolutions will transform business communications in the near future. Because they won’t.

The best solution for businesses needing voice, text, and data communications beyond the range of cellular networks remains good, old-fashioned satellite phones.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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