Let’s talk about our future of satellite cellular services this week. Then we’ll close with my product of the week: a very affordable pair of active noise-cancelling headphones that may be perfect for those that take long trips and need to sleep with them on. Apple’s Emergency SOS via satellite service, which will be the first to go live of these next generation services, is very limited. Its one big advantage is that it will work long before the others reach critical mass.
Apple unveiled new iPhones with a number of intriguing new features last week. When a cellular tower is out of reach, one function links the phone to a satellite in a very restricted fashion, while another reports if you’ve been in an accident. Starlink and T-Mobile are promoting an as-yet-unavailable service that should make Apple’s satellite service seem like it hasn’t aged well. All of them come after AST SpaceMobile, which will launch its first 4G/5G satellite next year to start offering service.
Still, every year there are a ton of people that get stranded out where I live. They don’t realize that the weather can change very quickly here, and if you are a long way from your car or civilization in only shorts and a T-shirt when that happens, you’ll need help, or you are likely to lose anything from a few fingers to your life.
If you are in the middle of nowhere and need help, it will not do you any good to have a service that doesn’t work yet, so the limitations on the Apple service only become a problem for Apple when the other services get to critical mass. Look for that in or around 2025. This service only works in open areas with a clear line of sight to the sky and, I expect, you may at times have to dance around a bit to get an adequate signal. It will not work if you fall into a ravine, get stuck in a cave, or are in a bunker.
Apple is working with Globalstar for this feature. IPhone 14 users, the only ones to initially get this feature, will get two years of this service for free. By then, there will likely be alternatives available, and this initial offering will undoubtedly also improve.The service is better than nothing and, right now, unless you want to invest in an expensive Iridium (or other satellite) phone, that is pretty much your only choice. Iridium’s service, while expensive, is much less than I recall it being but still more expensive than traditional cellular.
The app helps you find a satellite and then, through menus, uses the intelligence of the phone to minimize the message and get it to someone who can help you. It can, however, take anywhere from 15 seconds to several minutes to get a clean line of sight to the satellite for this to work. So, if you have a broken leg, or are otherwise disabled, you may still be out of luck.
AST SpaceMobile, which is slated to launch its low earth Satellite in 2023, has partnerships with companies like Vodafone and AT&T providing a strong path for worldwide initial coverage. They will need between 45 and 65 Satellites to get to critical mass which should happen, assuming no major market shifts or the emergence of a better competing technology at scale, before the end of 2025.
The company is wrapped with 2,400 patents and should be able to provide decent 4/5G coverage once they get to critical mass. The service would be treated much like international travel or on-plane service for areas where there are cellular alternatives, so your phone will work where it currently doesn’t. Or as a primary phone service for those out of cellular coverage areas, like remote land or sea locations.