Apple’s Emergency SOS Link puts it in the satellite fight with SpaceX and more

After Apple announced that the iPhone 14 and 14 Pro will be able to send messages via satellite in case of emergency, it’s clear that the company hasn’t just introduced a new feature. It plays a key role in the new industry practically overnight by becoming more involved with satellite communications by adding emergency SOS via satellite in a general manner.

Apple has partnered with Globalstar for its satellite operations and plans to use the company’s 24-satellite alliance to run its service, confirming long-running rumors about its plans for Band 53 / n53 communications. In practice, that means Apple joins a litany of companies trying to “eliminate dead zones,” as T-Mobile put it when it announced a partnership with SpaceX last month to create its own emergency communications service. Like that service, Apple’s Emergency SOS via satellite will initially only be available in the US. (Even there, there are some caveats — it may be less reliable in northern parts of Alaska, and not all international travelers can use this feature when visiting.)

As large a physical, financial and regulatory effort as sending satellites into space is, there are a surprising number of players in the field. A company called Link Global is trying to build a worldwide emergency communications network that works with unmodified phones, and in 2020 it claimed to be the first to send a text from space in its satellite test. Meanwhile, a company called AST SpaceMobile hopes to use satellite-to-phone communications for 4G and 5G Internet as well, and plans to launch a test satellite by the end of this week. Amazon is also involved with its Project Kuiper, but so far the deals we’ve heard about that system involve transmitting internet to cell towers rather than directly to phones.

During the “Far Out” iPhone 14 launch event on Wednesday, Apple made it clear that it would be getting involved with a satellite emergency response system. “We’ve set up relay centers with highly-trained emergency specialists ready to get your texts and call an emergency service provider on your behalf,” says Ashley Williams, manager of the Satellite Modeling and Simulation Company. Although the company has indicated that it has been involved in “infrastructure innovation” for the feature over the past few years, it hasn’t fully captured the scale of its investment.

According to a report from Reuters, Apple is spending $450 million on satellite infrastructure, with most of that investment going to Globalstar. Apple has agreed to pay 95 percent of the costs for new satellites associated with the feature, according to an SEC filing.

Image of a satellite floating in space above the Earth

Apple showed off some animations of satellites during its presentation — an image of the type of thing it pays for.
Image: Apple

Tim Farrar, an analyst at Telecom, Media and Finance Associates, a satellite and telecom-focused consulting and research firm, said he expects those satellites to cost Apple up to $50 million by 2026, based on Globalstar’s revenue projections in the filing. Farrar also mentioned. Apple appears to be paying a “relatively low price” for the service. “Globalstar had revenue of $124 million last year. It will reach $185-$230 million in 2023,” he said, indicating that Apple will pay Globalstar about $110 million next year. Apple announced that the service will be free to users for the first two years, but did not say how much it would cost after that.

That price is likely to put pressure on other satellite operators. “T-Mobile may not be willing to pay more than $100 million a year,” Farrar said, referring to the carrier’s recent announcement that it is partnering with SpaceX to provide emergency text services in the US and plans to begin testing the service next year. . Link and AST already have some deals with carriers around the world and say they’re working on others — it’s hard to imagine that Apple’s official announcement won’t affect those conversations in some way.

This is especially true since Globalstar is not interested in operating fully With Apple. As analyst Harold Feld points out, the company’s filing includes a list of other partners interested in using its terrestrial spectrum. That list includes “cable companies, legacy or upstart wireless carriers, system integrators, utilities and other infrastructure operators.” (Other satellite operators appear to be interested in that spectrum but not in partnership with Globalstar. On September 6, SpaceX filed an application (As the Federal Communications Commission asked the regulator to allow it to share the band 53 and n53 spectrum used by Apple’s partner.)

Feld thinks that the inclusion of the major carriers and their competitors “is something Globalstar hopes will become a popular feature.” However, he pointed out that Apple’s contract with the satellite provider gives it the right to “veto decisions that adversely affect Globalstar’s ability for Apple to meet its obligations.” In other words, if Apple feels that a deal with another carrier would put too much pressure on the network, it could shut down the proposal.

That power creates an interesting regulatory situation. According to Feld, if a company has sufficient investment or control over a company licensed to use the spectrum, the FCC considers it an “attributable interest,” basically saying it’s a part owner. So far, Feld said, Apple hasn’t reached this point — but if Apple wants to increase its investment or take control of Globalstar, it will need approval from regulators.

Apple introducing a satellite communication feature to the iPhone is always going to have a big impact on the overall market – even more so with any company it works with to make it happen. We’ve seen it in fitness, fashion, entertainment and other fields, and now, space is joining the list. The details show how involved Apple is now with Globalstar and its satellites. As with most things, having a partner that does its own thing while providing a service is clearly not satisfying.

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