At Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) Sept. 7 iPhone 14 occasion, a brand new service was launched, Emergency SOS through Satellite tv for pc. Whereas the service affords very restricted textual content messaging, it represents solely step one towards full satellite tv for pc connectivity for iPhone. Apple isn’t ready for others to pioneer this new know-how earlier than swooping in with its model, however is taking the lead.
Proven above is iPhone 14 and 14 Plus, now with 5G and satellite tv for pc connectivity.
The lengthy gestation of Apple’s satellite tv for pc efforts
Reviews first surfaced in 2017 of Apple hiring satellite tv for pc engineering executives for then unknown functions. Mark Gurman reported that Apple had employed John Fenwick who had led Google’s (GOOG) (GOOGL) spacecraft operations and Michael Trela, head of satellite tv for pc engineering at Google.
On the time, it was speculated that Apple may wish to construct its personal satellite tv for pc constellation. However it is a very bold job. To speak with a satellite tv for pc from a handheld machine requires that the satellite tv for pc be in low earth orbit – LEO, an altitude of about 800 km. Every satellite tv for pc solely covers a small patch of floor, and this patch strikes with the satellite tv for pc at its orbital velocity.
To supply steady protection requires a really massive constellation of satellites flying completely different orbits. This is the reason the Starlink system requires 1000’s of satellites. This can be a multi-billion greenback enterprise, even for those who’re flying reusable rockets as SpaceX does.
In all probability, Apple was all the time wanting on the downside of satcom (satellite tv for pc communication) for iPhone and needed consultants in satellite tv for pc operations and communication techniques. Apple could even have thought-about constructing its personal constellation, however the historical past of satcom is plagued by monetary failures, corresponding to the primary Iridium community.
With so many new entrants into the sector, in addition to present networks corresponding to Iridium and Globalstar (GSAT), Apple was most likely blissful to let others tackle the duty of constructing a contemporary LEO community. The job of constructing iPhone satcom-capable was going to be tough sufficient.
However the timeline right here illustrates the very lengthy perspective of Apple’s R&D efforts.
Why satcom from a smartphone is so exhausting
Quick-forward to August 2021 a short while earlier than the iPhone 13 launch, and there was an fascinating report (courtesy Apple Insider) from Ming-Chi Kuo that iPhone 13 would help satellite tv for pc communication:
In a word to traders, seen by AppleInsider Ming-Chi Kuo says that the Qualcomm X60 baseband chip that Apple is predicted to be utilizing within the “iPhone 13” will help low-earth orbit satellite tv for pc communications. He bases this on Qualcomm’s work with Globalstar, making the latter the probably accomplice for the hassle.
“There are various potential eventualities for Apple’s enterprise mannequin cooperation with Globalstar,” writes Kuo. “The only situation is that if the consumer’s operator has already teamed with Globalstar, the consumer can immediately use Globalstar’s satellite tv for pc communication service on the iPhone 13 via the operator’s service.”
If the report is correct, it will not be the primary smartphone to help satellite tv for pc communications, however will probably be the primary mainstream mannequin to take action. Kuo says that different distributors that need satellite tv for pc communications features must wait a 12 months till some level in 2022, and must use the forthcoming X65 baseband chip.
True, different smartphones have come out with satcom functionality, however they are typically relatively ugly hybrids, such because the Thuraya X5-touch:
In an article I wrote on Aug. 30, I identified the technical hurdles that must be overcome for this to work. Kuo was right that there was a 5G New Radio band, n53, that Qualcomm (QCOM) and Globalstar had agreed could possibly be used for satcom, however much more must be performed to the cellphone to ensure that this to work.
The most important downside is the dimensions of the antenna that will be required. As Apple identified of their iPhone 14 occasion, LEO satellites are a lot additional away than the standard cell tower, they usually’re shifting. Satcom telephones compensate for this partly through the use of a lot bigger antennas and through the use of extra highly effective radio transmitters, which shorten their battery life significantly.
Proven above is a typical Globalstar handset considered from the again with a foldout antenna and enormous replaceable battery.
Certainly not was Apple going to permit an enormous ugly antenna to be hooked up to its lovely, slender iPhones. One other resolution needed to be discovered.
To a point, the answer was to slender the scope of the issue to make it extra tractable. It’s well-known in radio communications that lowering the communication bandwidth in bits per second reduces the facility required for the radio.
This could compensate both for decrease energy transmitters or for higher distance to the receiver. Interplanetary spacecraft make the most of this, sending again information at painfully gradual charges.
For Apple, this meant proscribing communication to comparatively gradual textual content messaging on an emergency foundation. Additionally, Apple takes benefit of the truth that smartphone antennas don’t radiate uniformly in area, however have a tendency to pay attention their indicators in a specific route. Apple developed a particular consumer interface to assist the consumer level the cellphone sign on the satellite tv for pc:
On condition that the consumer has to maintain the cellphone pointed on the shifting satellite tv for pc, I’m somewhat skeptical how effectively this might work in an emergency state of affairs when the consumer may already be nervous or panic-stricken. Nevertheless it’s the answer that Apple got here up with, and it obviates the necessity for the ugly antenna.
To a point, Apple’s strategy turned an answer in quest of an issue, and I feel Apple has discovered the correct downside to resolve within the close to time period. Recall that Apple’s first foray into untethered communication for Apple Watch was an analogous SOS operate over Wi-Fi. Watch ultimately developed right into a standalone mobile communicator.
And Apple’s satellite tv for pc communications supplier?
Maybe probably the most intriguing query is who’s the satcom supplier that Apple has teamed up with. By now, Apple might be utilizing the Qualcomm X65 modem within the iPhone 14 sequence (normal and Professional). The X65 was particularly known as out because the modem that will help Globalstar’s satellite tv for pc community in a joint announcement in February 2021:
Globalstar, Inc. at this time introduced that Qualcomm Inc. has included Globalstar’s Band n53 in its new 5G X65 modem. The X65 is Qualcomm’s flagship 5G modem and provides international 5G band help for n53. With Qualcomm’s help the potential machine ecosystem expands considerably to incorporate the preferred smartphones, laptops, tablets, automated gear and different IoT modules.
Kyle Pickens, VP Technique stated, “Qualcomm’s help of Band n53 represents a major milestone in our efforts to commercialize our spectrum within the US and all different international locations the place we have now or anticipate to acquire terrestrial authority.”
The appearance of the X65 modem and the satellite tv for pc SOS service appear greater than coincidental. Nonetheless, the requirement to be outdoor, in addition to the pointing requirement, means that Apple isn’t utilizing the n53 band, however increased frequency bands within the millimeter wave area between 20 and 40 GHz, known as the Ka band. Apple’s specs for iPhone 14 and 14 Professional signifies that a few of these bands are supported.
For this utility, millimeter wave would make extra sense, however this might rule out Globalstar. SpaceX is a chance, nevertheless, because it makes use of Ka band. A hook-up between Apple and SpaceX could be an fascinating one, a match made in… effectively, you’ll be able to think about.
Investor takeaways: The start of the true “all the time related” period
It might be straightforward to cross off Emergency SOS through Satellite tv for pc as a distinct segment service, however I might submit that that is solely the start. Apple may construct a compact phased-array antenna underneath the glass again of iPhone that will tremendously enhance sign power, bandwidth, and get rid of the necessity for guide monitoring.
Consider this as a miniature Starlink antenna, which is also a phased array, embedded into the cellphone. Communications bandwidth wouldn’t be nice, however ample for regular voice and textual content, roughly a megabit/sec.
Or a good bigger exterior antenna could possibly be offered by a 3rd get together and plug into the USB-C port that’s to come back. Such a tool additionally would require a separate modem and presumably a battery as effectively, however it will allow excessive bandwidth satcom in a extra compact package deal than presently out there.
Off grid communication is the ultimate frontier, however it has plenty of purposes from journey trekking to bluewater crusing. It additionally helps broaden the marketplace for LEO satcom, which is definitely form of problematic. As progressive as techniques corresponding to Starlink are, most customers in city environments don’t want them.
Tapping into the cell machine base (billions of gadgets) ought to enhance the income each for satcom suppliers and for the smartphone makers corresponding to Apple. And the race to offer smartphone satcom already has began.
Huawei introduced the Mate 50, which can characteristic satellite tv for pc based mostly texting, only a day earlier than the iPhone 14 launch. And, after all, SpaceX and T-Cell introduced their partnership at a stay occasion on Aug. 25.
One can query whether or not this know-how will discover a market and be commercially profitable. In all probability, smartphone makers and satcom suppliers have arrived on the proper reply: A hybrid of the satcom cellphone and the smartphone that preserves the options and advantages of the smartphone. I stay lengthy Apple and charge it a Purchase.