Satellite Messaging: The 2023 Phones Trend That Wasn't (Yet)
Why texting over satellites didn't take over the phone world in 2023.
David LumbMobile Reporter
David Lumb is a mobile reporter covering how on-the-go gadgets like phones, tablets and smartwatches change our lives. Over the last decade, he's reviewed phones for TechRadar as well as covered tech, gaming, and culture for Engadget, Popular Mechanics, NBC Asian America, Increment, Fast Company and others. As a true Californian, he lives for coffee, beaches and burritos.
Expertisesmartphones, smartwatches, tablets, telecom industry, mobile semiconductors, mobile gaming
Some reporters (ahem, myself) thought it would be the year of phone-to-satellite connectivity. Sike! It didn't manifest, and now it looks like we're headed straight into 2024 as a year of on-device AI. What happened?
This cresting of a fad wave only to see it plummet was probably only seen by phones fans. Apple began to make waves with the release of Emergency SOS via Satellite within the iPhone 14 in late 2022. The tool lets iPhone owners send texts to emergency services through satellites.
Then Qualcomm kicked off 2023 with a big pitch: by midyear, handsets with Snapdragon chips would be able to tap into satellite owner Iridium's network to relay emergency texts at first, then eventually send data and videos. At CES 2023, the company took reporters out into the Las Vegas desert for a demonstration of satellite-connected phones. Motorola and robust phonemaker Bullitt teased their own tough satellite handset solution, which caused more ripples.
But by the end of 2023, no phones had come out with Snapdragon Satellite and Qualcomm ended its deal with Iridium. Further, the satellite solutions proposed by AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile have yet to come online.
The year is poised to end with no other mainstream phones getting satellite texting, let alone voice or video. That leaves the iPhone as the sole handset that can connect to and use satellites to augment their communications in an emergency. It's a reality check on the hype, including buzz echoed by media, and a recognition that there are more obstacles to tackle before we're all texting with our smartphones from the middle of nowhere.
What happened to the year of Satellite Texting, as this reporter was so bold (or foolish) as to predict? And when will satellite service expand beyond iPhones to help hapless Android owners?
Everyone but Apple is at a satellite standstill
After the iPhone 14 debuted with satellite connectivity last year, Qualcomm and wireless carriers rushed to follow. But no other company has been able to pull it off just yet.
Efforts by US carriers to use satellites to reach subscribers traveling outside their mobile networks have yet to materialize. T-Mobile teamed up with SpaceX to use its thousands of microsatellites, which would seemingly give it a lead on competitors. But we haven't heard an update since March when SpaceX said it would start testing sometime in 2023. AT&T asked the FCC in May to block that partnership.
While the carriers haven't outlined exactly how their solutions would work, they have cursorily noted that their offerings will be compatible with a variety of handsets. That could set them apart from Apple and Qualcomm's solutions, which are gated by hardware.
Qualcomm's Snapdragon Satellite was envisioned as a service that enabled phonemakers to tap into Iridium's network if they implemented the then-latest premium chipset, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2, in their handsets. Like other features made available in Qualcomm's silicon, it was up to device manufacturers to determine how they wanted to implement it. Evidently, no phonemaker took Qualcomm up on the offer.
At Qualcomm's Snapdragon Summit in Hawaii in October, company executives remained optimistic about using satellites for emergency and worldwide mobile coverage. We could see that implemented in two or three years, said Alex Katouzian, senior vice president and general manager of mobile, compute and XR at Qualcomm. That's when the expanded coverage will justify the extra cost of a satellite service, and the mobile industry will get there "when OEMs want to carry the extra cost," Katouzian said.
Even the future of Qualcomm's own offering is seemingly in question. Weeks after the Snapdragon Summit, Qualcomm announced that it's ending its partnership with Iridium. For its part, the satellite company remained bullish that "the direction of the industry is clear toward increased satellite connectivity in consumer devices," Iridium CEO Matt Desch said in the press release. But without a satellite network to tap, the future of Snapdragon Satellite in its current iteration is unclear.
The biggest roadblock to satellite texting is money, said Avi Greengart, president and lead analyst at Techsponential.
"Pricing is an open question for any of these services, and negotiating the service and cost structure is likely as much a stumbling block as technical issues," Greengart said. "The most widely used cellular-satellite service is Apple's Emergency SOS via Satellite, and thus far Apple has footed the entire bill as an ancillary benefit to buying an iPhone 14 or 15."
But the other roadblock potentially in Qualcomm's way is that Snapdragon Satellite is a proprietary solution. Instead, phonemakers wanted a standards-based solution -- something that adhered to what the 3GPP communications consortium established for non-terrestrial networks (NTN). If devicemakers went for Qualcomm's solution and the rest of the industry shifted toward 3GPP's NTN standard, those devices might be left behind if Qualcomm's proprietary connection dried up.
Apple's deep pockets go a long way
The iPhone's Emergency SOS is a singular solution that's tough to replicate given the measures Apple has taken to ensure it works. Apple partnered with Globalstar, using its satellites to relay messages from phones (for now, the iPhone 14 and iPhone 15) to get help. Those messages are sent to a dedicated Apple-funded-and-organized triage team that forwards them to appropriate emergency response services near the iPhone owners.
Since launching in late 2022, Apple's satellite service has provided potentially lifesaving help for a number of iPhone 14 and iPhone 15 owners who have tumbled into canyons beyond cell service and even been stranded in the Maui fires. Apple showcased these rescues during its press events to help promote its latest phones. It evidently believes it's a worthwhile investment, considering the company expanded its initial two years of complimentary Emergency SOS service into a third free year for iPhone 14 owners.
But to achieve that level of service, you'd need to have Apple's level of finances. That's why other satellite solutions required different approaches to shoulder the financial and logistical burden.
When Emergency SOS for satellites launched in November 2022, Apple stated that the company had invested $450 million to make its system work, a majority of which went to satellite company Globalstar to power the phone-to-satellite experience (including 300 Globalstar employees who support the service). Apple declined to comment on how much that service costs to maintain in the year since Emergency SOS went live. But Apple's deep pockets and resources likely played a big role in making the service a reality.
Beyond having the finances to support satellite systems, expanding such services beyond iPhones could just be a matter of waiting for the infrastructure to catch up. Even if Snapdragon Satellite had gotten device support, its partner Iridium's 25-year-old satellite constellation is closer to 2G than 5G, Snapdragon Vice President Francesco Grilli noted when the service was revealed at CES. That means it could handle texting just fine but not voice calls unless Iridium added newer satellites to its cluster.
While Apple's iPhone 14 and 15 can send Emergency SOS texts over partner GlobalStar's network, it's not clear if the current setup can handle voice calls or video. And the other solutions proposed by carriers are still a ways away from handling their text loads, let alone voice and data. We could just be in a waiting game, said Anshel Sag, principal analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy.
"I think it will still be a few years before this comes to fruition," Sag said. "And I think it's very dependent on the deployment of these [low Earth orbit) constellations."
Watch this: I Tried Emergency SOS via Satellite on the iPhone 14