Communication in the high mountains or in the middle of the desert has so far been the privilege of seasoned professionals or wealthy users. Satellite telephony requires equipment that is heavier than conventional smartphones and equipped with an unattractive external antenna, reminiscent of the very first generation of GSM.
The entrance ticket is high. Without taking into account the cost of communication – a minimum of one euro per minute for voice calls – terminals offered by specialized manufacturers such as Iridium, Isatphone or Thuraya cost from a few hundred euros to more than 2000 euros.
The situation is changing. Tomorrow everyone can get a “satphone” – a bag word born from the contraction of the words “satellite” and “smartphone”. Recent announcements suggest the ability to connect to satellite networks using a simple smartphone based on iOS or Android.
Apple investment of $450 million
In this area, Apple shot first. In September, Apple announced that owners of the new iPhone 14 will have a special feature called Emergency SOS that will allow them to send messages to emergency services in the most remote areas.
When there is no cellular or Wi-Fi coverage, the iPhone screen displays several important questions, the answers to which are transmitted to emergency services with the exact location of the user, as well as their battery level and, if they filled it out, their medical form. The latter, however, will have to point its terminal in the right direction in order to provide satellite communications.
To roll out this new feature, Apple has planned a $450 million investment in a special fund, part of which will go to satellite operator Globalstar. This emergency satellite SOS service has been available in the US and Canada since mid-November, and in France, Germany, Ireland and the UK since December.
For emergency services, as well as for outdoor recreation
Android devices will soon enter the race. On the occasion of the latest CES in Las Vegas in early January, semiconductor manufacturer Qualcomm announced a partnership with the Iridium satellite network (66 satellites) to offer this type of service for the next generation of smartphones equipped with its Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chips.
Called Snapdragon Satellite, the service is not limited to sending short messages to emergency services. It will also be possible to communicate with a predefined list of contacts. Qualcomm is also pushing for two-way messaging and therefore the ability to receive texts in response.
Another difference from Apple is that the Qualcomm chip is designed to integrate not only smartphones, but also other terminals such as tablets, connected watches or cars. Garmin, a GPS navigation company, has already integrated this technology into its products.
This manufacturer, well known to tourists, skiers and other boaters, is already in this niche. In February, the company released the second version of the ultra-compact inReach Mini 2 satellite communicator. Its SOS function sends a distress signal to the Garmin International Emergency Response Coordination Center, which is available 24/7.
Permanently remove white areas
How much will this new satellite messaging cost? A Qualcomm spokesperson told The Verge that this would depend on the policy of the OEMs or carriers. In the future, the offer may also extend to sending SMS and voice calls, but then that would involve the addition of the infamous unsightly external antenna.
Satellite operators should also capitalize on this new windfall, thanks to Apple and Qualcomm’s partnerships with Globalstar and Iridium, respectively, as we’ve seen. In August, T-Mobile partnered with SpaceX to use satellites from its Starlink subsidiary to provide coverage in remote areas without cell service.
This satellite phone functionality could, in fact, be a real plus in countries where there are still large white areas in Australia, Africa or North America. In other countries, the regulatory framework will have to be canceled in advance. The daily newspaper Les Echos reminds that satellite phones are currently not allowed in India and China.