Apple to spend $450M on SOS via satellite for iPhones

Apple has announced it will invest $450 million from its Advanced Manufacturing Fund to develop the  infrastructure that allows off-grid backpackers to call for help when outside mobile coverage.

Is that all there is?

Apple’s iPhone 14 is the company’s first-ever satellite phone. Or to be more accurate, it’s a step toward becoming one. You can’t make calls on it, but you will soon be able to use the satellite connection to send messages to emergency services from across the US and Canada. This could be a life saver.

Apple has said it will offer Emergency SOS over satellite as a free service for the next two years; today’s release confirms it will launch this month.

In a statement, Apple said it is spending $450 million to help put in place the critical infrastructure its Emergency SOS via satellite for iPhone 14 devices requires. That means at least some of this cash is being spent to improve and expand the infrastructure of its satellite partner, Globalstar.

Today’s release specifically cites investments across Globalstar’s existing US ground stations in Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Nevada, Puerto Rico, and Texas. Apple also said more than 300 Globalstar employees now support the new service.

The idea that the company is investing millions in a service for off-grid backpackers seems a little far-fetched, so it’s clear that Apple and Globalstar have bigger plans around satellite connectivity and Apple products. They must. Under terms of the deal between the two companies, Apple has agreed to pay 95% of the capital costs associated with the service, and Globalstar intends to launch many more satellites by the end of 2025.

What has Apple got?

Apple announced its work with Globalstar during the iPhone 14 launch event in September. I spent some time looking through the various regulatory documents concerning that deal. At the time, Apple promised the service would launch in the US and Canada in November, probably in the next major iOS point upgrade. The filings seem to reveal the following:

  • Apple has secured 85% of Globalstar’s network capacity under the deal.
  • Apple spent tens of millions of dollars to support the launch of a Globalstar satellite in June.
  • While Apple seems to suggest the service will expand, it specifically states it will not be made available in China, Hong Kong, or Macao.
  • Apple began discussion with the satellite firm in 2019, when they reached a Key Terms Agreement in the filings I saw.
  • The deal seems to suggest new ground stations will be put in place globally.
  • Globalstar has also ordered next-generation satellites for launch by the end of 2025.
  • The arrangement was put together by Tony Blevins, Apple’s now former vice president of procurement.

The final frontier

“We expect our terrestrial authority will allow future partners to develop high-density dedicated networks using the TD-LTE and 5G protocols for private networks as well as the densification of cellular networks,” said Globalstar.

It will be some time before satellite can support mass market communications. Right now, the tech is only really suitable for relatively low bandwidth, low demand tasks — if everyone on Earth had a satellite phone, these systems would collapse. That’s why Apple’s Emergency SOS interface consists of a small number of pre-created messages that can be sent to request aid.

All the same, it is worth noting that the n53 standard Apple now supports in iPhones was originally championed by Globalstar. This may well have relevance for the future establishment of high-bandwidth applications of the tech.

That said, I don’t see much consensus that satellite is ready to replace cellular service yet, though the continued convergence of voice and data makes it more possible, and I imagine we’ll see satellite communication protocols play an important part in 6G specifications in a few years. 

What comes next?

“With Apple’s infrastructure investment, we’ve grown our teams in California and elsewhere to construct, expand, and upgrade our ground stations, and we look forward to the next chapter in Globalstar’s lifesaving technology,” said Jay Monroe, Globalstar’s executive chairman.

Beyond emergency messaging, I can see the Apple/Globalstar deal having relevance for IoT deployments. The satellite company already supports connected infrastructure deployed by Nokia in the Port of Seattle and it’s not especially hard to see how Apple is already experimenting with ideas around mesh networks and positioning — FindMy, AirTags and UWB are all about those things.

It’s not especially difficult to see all those spaces converging, and they will need to do so, particularly as Apple explores other ways to create winning solutions based around connected product design. The company has been explicit about that combination, pointing out in its latest release that iPhone users who are outside of cellular or Wi-Fi coverage will be able to launch the Find My app to share their location via satellite using the new service.

That same tech could support a global Apple TV service as well as also providing robust location and emergency service tracking for connected devices of some kind.

Apple’s statement today suggests work on the product offer will now intensify as the company puts in place the foundational technologies to support whatever satellite-supported solutions it has in mind to introduce, probably in or around 2025.

Apple’s Advanced Manufacturing Fund

Apple’s Advanced Manufacturing Fund was created in 2017. Since then it has paid $450 million to Corning for iPhone glass, $390 million to Finisar for FaceID components, $100 million to XPO Logistics and $10 million to Copan Diagnostics for COVID-19 test kit parts.

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Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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