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Android and iPhone satellite connectivity: Here's what you need to know
When the iPhone 14 launched, one of its key talking points was its satellite connectivity. In case of an emergency, the iPhone 14 series could connect to a low-orbit satellite and send an SOS message, even when there is absolutely no cell signal on the phone. Android, of course, wouldn’t be left far behind either, as many OEMs have now promised to offer satellite connectivity support. But what exactly is satellite connectivity, and how does it work on iPhones and Android? We bring you the answer.
What is satellite connectivity?
A satellite phone, sometimes called a satphone, is a phone that connects to a telephone network through satellites that orbit the Earth. This is unlike our modern-day smartphones, which connect to ground-based cell towers.
Connections made over satellites, through satellite phones, for example, come under the ambit of satellite connectivity, though modern smartphones are now beginning to incorporate satellite connectivity too. To unravel the difference in approaches, we need to understand how satellite phones and cell phones differ.
Satellite phones vs cell phones
The way signals are transmitted by satellite phones and by our smartphones is the fundamental difference between the two.
A cell phone primarily connects to a cell tower on land. If you can visualize the Earth’s surface as a giant grid, then each small unit grid can be thought of as an individual cell. Each cell would require a cell tower to service the small geographical area within its grid. The closer you are to the cell tower, the better the network reception on your cell phone.
A cell phone connects to a cell tower on land. A satellite phone connects to a satellite that is orbiting over the Earth.
When you move from one cell to another, your phone switches cell towers to latch onto the closest cell tower. However, if a cell tower is not available nearby to connect to, your phone will lose signal. You will not see any network connection on your phone, you will not receive any network services, you will not be able to receive any calls nor send any messages, and you will not be able to access the internet.
Most urban areas with high population have a dense mesh of cell towers, but rural lands with sparse population have a significantly lighter mesh of cell towers, and you will notice call drops and “out of network” errors much more frequently there. The more remote the area, the higher the likelihood of not having a serviceable network connection, simply because the economies of scale are not present to provide network service. But that does not mean that there is no need for network connectivity at all in those regions because there still is, especially for emergency needs.
This is where satellite phones become useful. Instead of connecting to cell towers on the ground, satellite phones connect to satellites that orbit the Earth. The signal from the phone is transmitted directly to the nearest satellite, and each satellite services a significantly larger surface of the Earth compared to a singular cell tower. The satellite phone does require an open sky and a line of sight between the phone and the satellite. But effectively, this eliminates the requirement of building a dense mesh of cell phone towers to promise a base level of network connectivity.
Building cell towers is not possible across the entire landmass, especially in areas with sparse population or other legal restrictions. And since satellite phones do not require land-based cell towers, they remain operational during disasters that affect the cell tower mesh, like natural calamities or war. This makes satellite phones serve a crucial need that cell phones cannot.
Satellite connectivity on modern smartphones
Satellite phones have historically remained a product that served a very narrow niche. Because of their special connection needs, satellite phones need different connectivity hardware than cell phones.
Smartphones are gaining satellite connectivity primarily for emergency and SOS communication.
However, cell phones have now evolved into smartphones that can do more than just connect to a cell network and let you call or send text messages. The tech has evolved enough to the point where some level of satellite connectivity can be added to modern smartphones. Smartphones may not entirely replace dedicated communication units on ocean liners, for instance, but they can be used for emergency communication and distress signaling by individuals. We fantasize about a future where the modern smartphone works equally and seamlessly across cellular and satellite networks.
For now, though, most of the available or demoed satellite connectivity options on smartphones focus on SOS messages. In the near future, we can expect to see two-way messaging as well, and some more months down the line, we hope to see internet data throughput as well.
T-Mobile and SpaceX’s satellite partnership
- It promises to work with existing 5G smartphones.
- It will launch in late 2023.
When leaks and rumors kept pointing towards an imminent satellite connectivity launch on the iPhone 14 series, T-Mobile swooped in to announce its own partnership with SpaceX to provide satellite connectivity on smartphones through Starlink satellites.
The highlight of this partnership is that you don’t need a dedicated satellite phone or even satellite connectivity tech in your phone to make use of it (when it launches in 2023). SpaceX’s Starlink satellites will be used to broadcast a new network on T-Mobile’s 1900MHz mid-band spectrum, so your existing 5G smartphone should be able to connect to it just fine. So when a T-Mobile subscriber does not have a ground cell tower nearby, they will be able to connect to this new network and send SMS, MMS, and use “select messaging apps.”
Voice and data connectivity are promised to be added in the future, though it would be wise to keep your expectations grounded. It could take as long as half an hour for a message to go through, so don’t expect it to replace your 5G plan anytime soon.
T-Mobile’s satellite connectivity plans are expected to launch in late 2023 in beta, right after SpaceX’s planned satellite launches. T-Mobile has not expressly detailed any further pricing information on the plan but said that it will aim to bundle it for free on “T-Mobile’s most popular plans.” If you are on a lower-cost plan, you may have to pay an additional monthly fee to avail of this service.
Apple’s Emergency SOS via satellite
- Works with the iPhone 14 series.
- Available to use since November 2022 in select regions.
Satellite communication on smartphones became a topic of conversation thanks to Apple. The iPhone 14 and its siblings are the first set of smartphones that are widely available in the market that support satellite connectivity, although this is restricted to a few countries at launch.
Apple takes a hardware-centric approach instead of a network-centric approach like T-Mobile. So in order to gain access to this feature, you need to have either the iPhone 14, iPhone 14 Plus, iPhone 14 Pro, or the iPhone 14 Pro Max. The feature does not work on older iPhones due to the absence of specialized antennas needed for communication with the satellite. So don’t expect the feature to arrive on older iPhones at all.
The feature is only available in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, and France at launch. Note that the feature is free for the first two years, and Apple hasn’t detailed what it will be charging post this period. It has partnered with satellite provider Globalstar for this service.
Since the feature requires a direct line of sight with satellites, Apple also built a special interface to help users position their device optimally. To use the feature, you will need to be in a location without a network signal and be dialing for emergency. The iPhone will then suggest emergency SOS via satellite, and will forward your text along with your location to the nearest emergency service. There’s also a ground relay service that will call emergency services if they do not accept texts.
Note that Apple’s Emergency SOS service is a one-way messaging service and does not support receiving responses to the messages sent out. But since the service went live in November 2022, it is indeed the first service to be actually available to consumers in a mass market product.
Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Satellite for Android
- It will work with Snapdragon smartphones that incorporate the feature.
- It will launch in H2 2023.
Of course, with Apple taking the lead on satellite connectivity on iPhones, Android OEMs are unlikely to sit quiet. So in January 2023, during CES, Qualcomm announced Snapdragon Satellite for Android.
Snapdragon Satellite for Android is similar to Apple’s emergency SOS feature, but it expands upon the use cases. Notably, it promises two-way messaging, letting users both send and receive messages. And rather than be restricted to just a handful of devices, Qualcomm is making the service available to the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chipset at first. OEMs can choose to build a smartphone with this connectivity feature but note that it will not be made available to existing phones as it requires specific hardware antennae that are not present in current devices. And going a step beyond, the company promised at MWC in March 2023 that the feature will be made available to future chipsets and modems beyond the flagship series too, so even a budget phone will be equipped to send out an emergency SOS.
Qualcomm’s satellite partner for this service is Iridium. The service will be restricted to North America and Europe at launch, and device manufacturers will be setting the pricing for the service. We don’t know if the feature will be expanded to more regions. As part of the vision for this service, two-way messaging will open up non-emergency uses too. Qualcomm may also eventually roll out voice and video support, but this will require more infrastructure.
MediaTek’s Satellite connectivity chips
- Standalone chips can be used irrespective of the brand of the primary SoC.
- Motorola Defy 2 / CAT S75, Motorola Satellite Link announced, available for pre-order in some regions.
MediaTek also played its hand in February 2023, ahead of MWC. The company showed off two chipsets that enable two-way satellite communication on smartphones. What makes MediaTek’s approach unique is the fact that both of these chips are standalone chipsets based on an open, non-proprietary standard. Hence, they do not require smartphones to also have a MediaTek CPU. This lets phone manufacturers add satellite connectivity features to any 4G or 5G smartphone, regardless of the primary SoC on it.
Motorola Defy 2 / CAT S75
If you want an Android smartphone that has two-way satellite messaging already incorporated, you need to take a look at the Motorola Defy 2. This is a rugged smartphone that comes with a built-in two-way satellite messenger called the Bullitt Satellite Messenger, a direct-to-device messaging service for Android phones. And to enable the feature, it relies on MediaTek’s satellite chips for satellite connectivity.
The Motorola Defy 2 is headed to North America, Latin America, and Canada in Q2 2023, with a price tag of $599, which includes a 12-month subscription to the Essential plan from Bullitt (30 two-way messages per month). The plan will cost $5 post the included subscription, while heavier usage plans will go all the way up to $60 for 250 two-way messages.
The same phone has been rebranded into the CAT S75 with a different back design, and you can pre-order it in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa for €599/£549, which includes a three-month free trial of the Essential plan from Bullitt.
Motorola Defy Satellite Link
Rugged smartphones aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. So if you would like to take advantage of satellite connectivity on your existing smartphone, you can do so with the Motorola Defy Satellite Link.
The Motorola Defy Satellite Link is practically like a one-device hotspot for satellite connections. It connects via Bluetooth to existing Android and iOS devices, allowing them, in turn, to connect to satellites. You can then send and receive SMS, share location, and access emergency services.
The Motorola Defy Satellite Link is built by Bullitt, and as you may have guessed, it is pretty much the same tech as the Defy 2 smartphone, but without the smartphone. So on the connected smartphone, you’d still need to use the Bullitt Satellite Messenger app to send two-way satellite messages.
The gadget itself costs $99, but you’ll also need the $5 Essential plan from Bullitt. The device will go on sale in Q2 2023 across international retailers.
Samsung’s Exynos modems with satellite connectivity
- Future Exynos modems will support two-way satellite messaging.
Samsung is also joining the race with its Exynos modems. The company announced that it has established the technology needed to enable two-way satellite messaging, just like its industry peers. The tech works on the Exynos 5300 modem to connect to low-Earth orbit satellites. This will allow future Exynos modems to support two-way communication.
Samsung’s mobile chief has famously remarked that the functionality of the technology is fairly limited. This has been cited as the reason why satellite connectivity is not present in the Galaxy S23 series. So it remains to be seen how the company goes about implementing it on their devices.
Do I need satellite connectivity on my phone?
As we established at the beginning of this article, satellite connectivity has important but admittedly niche and limited uses.
The technology has constraints, and as consumers, the cost is going to be one of your primary concerns. Satellite connectivity on your smartphone is not going to be cheap: It either comes as an upfront cost of a new device like the iPhone 14 (which is also only free for two years and could be any price after that), or it will be tied to a subscription model that will charge per message. Unlike what you may be used to paying for SMS, this cost may appear exorbitant.
But looking at the use cases, they do appear justified. Remember, emergencies don’t show up with an announcement. You never really know when you are in an unfortunate situation where you need to dial an emergency number but have absolutely zero cell network. The probability of such a situation is higher if you frequently visit less-populated areas that are already notorious for bad network reception.
Ultimately, whether you should place priority on satellite connectivity on your smartphone will boil down to you as a consumer. If you don’t see yourself leaving the confines of the city, and all your adventures are on the beaten path, then satellite connectivity may have very limited utility for you, if at all. On the other hand, if you reside on farmland or have a cabin by the woods, having a device that still gives you the opportunity to contact emergency services can be rather priceless.
If you live in a remote area, or you often venture off the beaten path, then satellite connectivity is for you.
We do expect pricing for the tech to rationalize in the coming years. We also expect the tech to become even more accessible than it already is. So if the costs appear prohibitive to you today, they may appear worth it down the line for the simple peace of mind.
Yes, the iPhone 14 series supports satellite connectivity in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, and France. The technology is used to enable Emergency SOS features.
The Galaxy S23 series does not support satellite connectivity in any region.
Not likely. Satellite connectivity needs to be expressly added to a smartphone as it requires special hardware antennae. The feature is compatible with the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chipset, but phones with satellite connectivity features will only launch in the second half of 2023.
As of right now, satellite connectivity focuses on providing emergency SOS connections through text messages only. Internet usage is outside the current scope of the technology.